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Coal Mining

Cultivating Knowledge Through Narrative – Mine Emergency Response


US coal mining organizations are losing the knowledge they need to respond to emergencies. Those who have the knowledge of how things really work are leaving – through downsizing, turnover or retirement. The KM approach used to deal with this issue is through narrative for cultivating and sharing knowledge across group members.

An underground coal mine is a high risk operation where a common form of learning such as trial and error is not feasible. Errors can produce disastrous consequences. In such high risk organizations new hires need to be indoctrinated with protocols, post analyses of past incidents and informal interactions with individuals who have knowledge gained in other experiences that can be transferred and applied to current situations. The authors contend that it is through informal contacts that there is the most value because they take the individual past rote learning of fact based information to the realm of ‘lessons learned’ from active inquiry into an organization’s knowledge base’.

US law requires that every mine operation must ensure the capability of the emergency mine rescue and recovery. Mine closings and the associated reduction in the numbers of miners have reduced the numbers of trained mine rescue members and the same process has also reduced the pool of potential emergency managers. As early as 1992, Pennsylvania noted that they could meet the regulations but could do so with no reserve capacity. There is also a concern that there are not enough adequately trained and equipped teams and people capable of directing their activities to meet emergency needs.

Given the shrinking and aging mine rescue and response force in the US and the industry’s employment pattern, there was a need to prepare for a changeover of personnel in the very near future. Government recommended that the industry embark on a strategy of teaching mineworkers how to better react to non routine situations and an increase focus on preparing people to manage rescue operations. The researchers analyzed a program in the early 1990s to enhance the expertise within a specialized community of practitioners while at the same time preparing for a new generation of incumbents.

A KM/KT Workgroup established in 2002 developed a KM solution regarding the development of a more systematic way of finding, understanding and using knowledge. Data was defined as ‘discrete facts’ and information as ‘contextualized data’. The US mining organizations are losing knowledge, the knowledge that is shared knowing that is distributed across group members. This knowledge can be cultivated and narrative was the medium through which this was done.

Detailed Description of the Tool/Practice

Researchers met with 30 mine rescue veterans and asked them to tell stories to capture what was happening at specific moments in particular incidents with which they had been involved. The miners were guided through four major topic areas by the interviewers, who audio-taped their comments. Interviews lasted between 60 to 90 minutes. Each topic area consisted of questions designed to elicit thoughts about the following:

  • When and how they became involved in emergency response work
  • The types of decisions that are made during an emergency response
  • Details about specific aspects of emergency responses, such as how long the individual stayed on-site
  • What they would tell future responders to help them be better prepared.

The audio tapes were transcribed and stored as computer text files and were analyzed for insights. This step raises another knowledge management issue, namely just as those being interviewed were engaged in deriving meaning, so too were the researchers who had to get meaning from this vast amount of “culture tales”. Researchers derive meaning through finding information that resonates with other people that can be constructed retrospectively but can also be used prospectively. The effort involves plausibility, coherence and reasonableness, even if the story must be filtered to make it acceptable and credible. The goal of the miners’ research was to present soft knowledge that would lead to insight, but not relate to everything each person said about a particular topic. The soft knowledge is filtered and is therefore not comprehensive, but if the filtering is effective then the information is more understandable.

A point stressed repeatedly by the interviewees was that mine rescue personnel and those who manage emergencies should be given ample opportunity to practice decision making in realistic scenarios.


  • Information Circular “An Oral History Analysis of Mine Emergency Response” (Vaught et al, 2004). This publication used stories in text to transfer some of the collective wisdom of the 30 veteran responders to a new generation of mineworkers.
  • Development of MERITS (Mine Emergency Interactive Training Simulation), a web-based mine emergency simulation, with enhanced feedback capabilities, that could be used in a mine office or other on-site location with computer and internet access. MERITS is rooted in narrative – the basic scenario developed from the collective stories of the veterans. The simulation develops over time. Trainees are involved in everyday functions of a mine, then an accident occurs and the manager’s role must either initiate decision alternatives or do nothing. The decisions, of necessity, will be like those that individuals or groups have used – or failed to use – in actual situations. Some will be good alternatives, and others may not be effective or even harmful. While trainees are working on the simulation problem they also receive feedback about the impact of the chosen alternative has upon the situation. Thus the exercise teaches by reinforcing good decisions, concepts and strategy and providing a basis for remediating incorrect responses. Shared knowledge grows through the process since those working on the simulation add their own stories of correct actions taken and opportunities missed. The MERITS session was held in 2000 and was conducted by an experienced mine emergency and mine rescue instructor. The participants were all managers from small underground mines.
  • The researchers found that the use of narrative to create shared knowledge and associated training tools significantly helped to train mining rescue personnel and managers of emergency response in a shortened time period. This was a key goal of the initiative since the industry was faced with a shortfall of qualified and experienced personnel in this specialized field. The approach taken to mine rescues can be adapted to many other situations within the sector.

Lessons Learned

The KM approach used, synthesized environmental, technical, organizational and personal perspectives. It posited human judgment as the critical component of the decision making process, recognizing that while computers are useful in structured situations, it is ingenuity that prevails in unstructured conditions. The concept is best captured by the following quote (Vaught quoting Bock): “The management of knowledge in decision making is a process ... knowledge is created. This happens in the heads of people. Knowledge is shared. When knowledge is shared and used, the folks who use it modify it. This takes us back to knowledge creation.” (p188) People are creators of knowledge and they are collectively one of its main repositories. To strengthen these ‘repositories’, organizations need to facilitate learning and put job aids and tools in the hands of people on the job.

Vaught, C., Mallet, L., Brinich, Jr., M. J., Reinke, D., Kowalski-Trakofler, K. M., and Cole, H.P.  (2006) “Knowledge Management and transfer for mine emergency response”, International Journal of Emergency Management, Vol 3, Nos. 2/3 pp178-191.