By Fire Protection Industry (ODS & SGG) Board Communications Coordinator, Robert Henningham

Safety is paramount in the Australian mining sector and one critical aspect of mine site welfare is fire suppression safety. All forms of mine sites can be prone to fire danger so it’s important to take precautions and safety seriously.

As many within the Australian mining sector know, the mining industry is exposed to various fire hazards that present across multiple sites. These include in and around process plants, underground conveyors, static and mobile plants, draglines, workshops, substations, monitored control rooms and switch rooms.

Generally, there are several types of fire suppression systems used to protect mining sites from fires. One of the more common methods is the use of water-based systems – such as sprinklers and deluge systems – which can quickly douse flames and prevent the spread of fire.

Another method utilises foam-based systems, which create a blanket of foam that suffocates the fire by cutting off its oxygen supply. Additionally, some mining sites utilise dry chemical systems, which release a fine powder that chemically interrupts the combustion process.

These diverse fire suppression methods are crucial for safeguarding mining sites and ensuring the safety of workers and valuable equipment in the event of a fire emergency.

Beyond these measures, the use of scheduled gases plays an important role within the fire protection space and is a feature of some fire suppression systems. To safeguard workers’ safety and the environment, the use of these agents requires appropriate training and licence to handle.

Underscoring fire protection

When it comes to adhering to applicable fire safety laws and regulations, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to best secure safety onsite and how to locate appropriate resources to ensure applicable fire safety laws and regulations are being adhered to.

One such source of information is the Fire Protection Industry Board (FPIB). Acting on behalf of the Federal Government’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water (DCCEEW), the FPIB plays a key role in setting guidelines and outlining recommendations to ensure that the mining industry adheres to the highest standards of fire safety.

A co-regulator with DCCEEW, the FPIB has been implementing the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas (OPSGG) Permit Scheme since 2005, and supports the fire protection industry to ensure safe management of harmful controlled gases that damage the climate, the atmosphere and human health.

The FPIB facilitates important industry engagement and education programs, working with technicians and businesses to meet licence conditions and the permit scheme objectives. Additionally, the FPIB works with DCCEEW to reduce non-compliance and reports extinguishing agent discharges so that it can target communications and work to improve extinguishing agent handling practices and the regulations that inform them.

As a direct action of the Federal Government’s Montreal Protocol obligations and in line with global environmental initiatives, the FPIB also administers the fire protection division of the Ozone Protection and Synthetic Greenhouse Gas Regulations 1995 (the Regulations) on behalf of the Federal Government.

This includes managing the permit and licensing systems of individuals, workers and businesses who handle scheduled extinguishing agents for fire protection. The federal regulations dictate which scheduled extinguishing agents require a licence to handle, as well as controlling the manufacture, export, import, use and disposal of ozone-depleting substances and synthetic greenhouse gases.

As the primary regulatory framework, the Regulations determine which permit is required for what work and how they can be used.

The Montreal Protocol and Australian mining

Adopted in 1987 by all governments across the world, the Montreal Protocol and its principal intention – to protect the ozone layer – is the primary reason behind the regulatory framework surrounding the use of scheduled gases in Australia.

The Protocol aims to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. While the initial focus has been on substances like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons, recent attention has also moved towards synthetic greenhouse gases (SGGs) due to their impact on climate change.

Scheduled gases are a key focus area of the Montreal Protocol because the compounds that are used within these extinguishing agents are damaging to the earth’s ozone layer when exposed to intense UV light. Stopping the release of these gases into the atmosphere and preventing the creation of holes in the earth’s ozone layer is crucial in helping avert environmental disaster through the release of extreme levels of ultraviolet light.

Understanding ozone-depleting potential and Global Warming Potential (GWP) is important when using gaseous suppression systems and extinguishing substances. Ozone- depleting potential (ODP) is a substance’s ability to destroy ozone molecules in the Earth’s stratosphere. Substances that have the potential to cause ozone depletion are often referred to as ozone-depleting substances (ODS). These substances include; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and bromine-containing compounds like methyl bromide.

Similarly, GWP is a measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere over a specific time period, relative to carbon dioxide (CO2).

The concept of GWP helps both scientists and policymakers understand the relative contributions of different greenhouse gases to warming temperatures and climate change. While CO2 is the most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, other gases such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) also contribute to global warming. GWP considers factors such as the gas’ ability to absorb infrared radiation, its atmospheric lifetime and its concentration in the atmosphere to quantify its warming potential.

FPIB guidelines for fire suppression in mining

With these environmental considerations in mind, the FPIB developed comprehensive guidelines for fire suppression systems used within the mining sector, as well as working to ensure all fire suppression agents adhere to regulations set by the Federal Government.

Gaseous fire suppression systems and equipment are found in both open-cut and underground mines, and it is quite common for sites to have a combination of scheduled and non-scheduled gaseous fire suppression systems, depending on the unique risks associated within the mine.

Primarily the most commonly used scheduled extinguishing agents within the mining sector are: FM-200®, FE-227TM, NAF-P-III and NAF S-III because of their ability to efficiently extinguish fires, whilst acting as the leading alternatives to the now-banned agent halon.

Outside of aviation and some marine environments, halon is now prohibited across Australian industries due to its extreme ozone-depleting and global warming potential upon entering the atmosphere.

Agents that are permitted for use under the Regulations must be obtained from companies who hold an EATA (Extinguishing Agent Trading Authorisation), a permit which is issued by the FPIB. These substances are used regularly on mining sites because they are non-conductors of electricity, cause minimal damage to equipment and have favourable environmental properties, whilst being clean and leaving no residue.

When using scheduled extinguishing agents, the FPIB recommends that builders, operators and owners of sites with gaseous fire suppression systems containing scheduled extinguishing agents ensure that the installation and maintenance of these systems is done by licensed technicians. Regular maintenance and service of gaseous fire suppressions should be conducted to ensure full functionality in the event of a fire and all technicians working with scheduled extinguishing agents must hold the appropriate licence, authorisation, or permit.

The value and effectiveness of gaseous fire suppression systems requires that they be properly designed, installed, commissioned and maintained. Put simply, if operators don’t get these elements right, a fire protection system is more likely to fail when needed.

In addition to this, although there is no requirement to replace systems, owners should consider changing these to environmentally friendlier alternatives where possible.

There are also a number of extinguishing agents that are not regulated under the government. For example, CO2, water- mist and nitrogen or argon inert gases are non-scheduled substances that do not fall under the act.

Ultimately, environmental responsibility and care using fire suppression systems and extinguishing agents in the mining sector goes beyond regulatory compliance. It is a moral imperative and the mining industry – a significant contributor to domestic and global trade – must also bear the responsibility of minimising its environmental footprint.

Not only is following the recommendations outlined by the FPIB an important way of keeping sites and crew members safe, but staying compliant with the relevant regulations is critical in helping Australia uphold its international duty and obligations in reducing ODS and Synthetic SGG use under the Montreal Protocol.

Adopting fire suppression systems that don’t rely on ODS or SGG use where possible or preventing the required use of an extinguishing agent entirely can assist Australia’s mining industry in demonstrating a commitment to both safety and sustainable practices.

Through the integration of both safety and sustainability measures, the acquisition of appropriate licenses, training and maintenance, the resources sector can correctly and effectively protect against fires, but can do so while causing less damage to the environment.

Featured image: A_stockphoto/shutterstock.com

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