News & Updates
American Fire Equipment (AFE) holds the unique honor of housing the only mining department in all of The Hiller Companies’ divisions or branches. And according to Mining Division Manager Dave Walters, the men and women in his department should be celebrated as warriors in the fire protection industry.
“These are the men and women who are dedicated to their jobs, to the safety of the miners they work with and the equipment the miners use,” Walters said. “When you consider the risk, the pressure and the conditions our people face every day on the job, they are definitely unsung heroes.”
The mining department is spread out across Arizona and New Mexico and supports copper mines. The three main groups within the mining division include mines with permanent people, vehicle system technicians and roving technicians. At any given time, there can be as many as 1,000 to 1,500 people working the mines.
Walters said that the mines AFE services are as far as five hours outside of the home office in Phoenix, Arizona. Often, his miners (though they work in fire protection, they are also called miners) are away from home five days per week. The first steps out of their trucks are usually into mud, and the work is normally outdoors. Mining does not stop due to heat or rain, snow or inclement weather.
The mines operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Equipment only goes down for repairs or refueling. Most systems AFE works on are critical to mining operations, and failures could cost millions of dollars. For example, a fire on a conveyor or an electrical building may cause substantial loss of revenue as certain areas of the mine may not be able to operate. Every piece of equipment undergoes a pre-operation inspection, and most can’t be operated if there is anything wrong with the fire suppression systems.
Add to this the risk of human loss, and you have a recipe for stress. Donald Medina, a mining tech at the Safford, Arizona mine with three years at AFE, has learned to cope with the stress.
“When you first start this kind of job, there is enormous focus on the risk and the life and death of it.,” Medina said. “You learn not to focus so much on that part and just focus on what you have to do. Check the lists. Do the job. If you think too much about it, it can keep you from being able to do the job well. But on the other side, you have to fight complacency. It can become routine, and you aren’t focused enough. You have to find the balance of keeping it all in perspective – focusing on the risk but not to the point that you let it affect your ability to do the job. I think I have that balance now, but sometimes when you start a new project you have to tweak that. The ramifications are so huge – from life and death to making sure you don’t lose a contract that is in the millions of dollars.”
Medina is permanently stationed at the Safford mine, an open-pit copper mine and is responsible for maintaining fire extinguishers as well as inspecting and servicing vehicles and buildings.
Robert Swain relates to the pressure Medina expressed.
“I do the best job I can. I know everyone here. We all grew up together and are friends,” Swain said. “I do my best to keep systems up and running and make sure everyone is safe.”
Swain is a fire systems repair technician with nearly ten years at AFE and is permanently stationed at the Bagdad, Arizona mine. His responsibilities include maintaining fire suppression systems on all equipment at the mine as well as fire extinguishers. If he finds a deficiency, he fixes it on the spot.
This stress also weighs on the mind of Mike Lyon, Vehicle Systems Superintendent with 14 years at AFE.
“If I send someone to a mine, I want to know they made it home safely,” Lyon said. “What we do is possibly saving a life, and it can also be saving multi-million dollar equipment.”
Lyon has been in the mining department since the beginning and helped to set the standards used in the mines today. He manages a 6-member team to make sure all safety requirements are accounted for, schedules are met, proposals are created and installs are scheduled.
“The pressure is there,” he said. “In 14 years, I have seen fires happen. And customers will call and say that their guy got out okay. That means our system worked and did what it was supposed to do. You don’t want to see accidents or injuries, but when fire does happen, you want to know your systems did what they were intended to do. That is the satisfaction of a job done right.”
So with this level of pressure and with this kind of risk, why do miners for AFE do what they do?
It comes down to goals, a desire to support family and a love of what they do.
“Why else would you do this job?” Medina asked. “It’s all about taking care of your family. Why else would you get up every day at 4:00 am and go to a job where the potential to be crushed by 400 tons is always there?”
Medina, Lyon and Swain all agree that you have to love it to do this kind of work. They all have a love of mining – from the process to the results and from the people to the locations. They all also expressed that AFE offers them support, opportunity for advancement and a work family they can count on.
“It’s a unique life, working the mines,” Walters said. “And without the team we have at AFE, we couldn’t do it. There is a lot of responsibility at every level, but there is also a lot of reward when you know the job you have done protects the people and property you are responsible for.”