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Experts Corner

A peek behind the scenes at Discovery's "Hoffman Family Gold"

Alaska is one of the most important mining regions in the United States, with mines throughout the vast state producing gold, silver, zinc, lead, and coal. Its extreme climate and rough terrain make it similar to many Canadian mining regions that SMS Equipment supports. Alaska is best known for its gold mines dating back to the 1860s, highlighted in Discovery Channels, "Hoffman Family Gold".

In their reality series "Hoffman Family Gold," Discovery is bringing the human experience of gold mining, with all its risks, rewards, and time pressures, into the living rooms of millions of viewers. Few people realize that Ron Fetzko, SMS Equipment's Technical Support Specialist for remote regions, works side-by-side with the cast and crew to support the production effort and ensure that the Komatsu equipment performs optimally. In this edition of Experts Corner, Ron tells what it's like to be in the spotlight when the cameras are rolling.
What does it feel like to be working behind the scenes of a reality TV show?

What does it feel like to be working behind the scenes of a reality TV show?

It was pretty intimidating at first. I'd never been around Hollywood or anything like that, and with all these celebrities around, I didn't know what to expect. But on our first day together, there they were with their dirty boots and coveralls, ready to go at seven in the morning and expecting to continue well into the evening.

It's full-on production, same crew, 16 – 18 hours a day. This mine operation is not a hobby for them – I've got to say that these are some of the most hard-working, sincere people I think I've ever worked with.
What's your typical day like?

What's your typical day like?

I work alongside the production team for the entire day. At the crack of dawn, the coffee pot is on, and we immediately kick off a safety meeting and review the morning lineup. By 8:00 AM, everybody should be on the machines.

During the morning meeting, I get a few minutes to brief people on equipment issues. Sometimes I make suggestions about things I'm seeing or how they could do things differently with the gear to get better results. I also take time to explain the Tier-4 emissions system because some of the mine staff do not have experience with these systems due to previously working with older fleets.
Then I go out and do my morning inspections on the machines. I look at the primary production machines first – the ones that don't get shut off, and I start making my rounds. Topping up greases and fluids is usually at the top of my list. I also review the maintenance schedules and aim to book a PM every three to four days, where I do oil changes or minor repairs.

The rest of my time is spent helping the plant, keeping water pumps and generators running, and working on non-Komatsu gear like pickup trucks, quads, or whatever else needs attention. I chip in wherever I'm needed, and the others help me out as well. It's a team effort, including the crew and cast members.
The show makes a big deal about how tough the terrain is. What's that like?

The show makes a big deal about how tough the terrain is. What's that like?

The terrain is rugged, but this is nothing unusual given the extremes I have experienced working in some of the most northern parts of Canada. I've spent a lot of time in the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, and it's a lot like that.

Getting there is a big issue! We're about 85 miles northwest of Nome, Alaska, but the road is more like a trail – you have to travel through two mountain ranges to get to the site, which takes about three hours.

Of course, that makes it pretty difficult to get parts here, too, so we work really hard to stay on top of that.

What were some of the demands on the equipment?

The big job is stripping off the permafrost to expose what they call the pay gravels – that's where the gold is. The pay gravels generally aren't too deep here. They're generally five to twenty feet below the overburden. These guys are pretty good at figuring out how to get at that material and not open too much at once – just the amount they need to keep going for the season.

As far as the equipment goes, traction is a big thing because we're on permafrost. Even if it's 20 degrees out and there's not a stitch of snow, they're still sliding around like they're on straight ice because they're on frozen ground.
It sounds like you've got a really interesting job.

It sounds like you've got a really interesting job.

I'm convinced I've got the best job at SMS Equipment, but it's not any different from what I do at other remote sites throughout Canada and the US. My role is to investigate and solve customers' problems, which gives me a lot of flexibility and variety - I go to a site, see what's not getting done, figure out what needs to be done, and help people get it done.

It's very exciting and rewarding work, and I hope seeing Hoffman Family Gold will encourage more young people to take this on as a career.

The Bottom Line:

Ron Fetzko is part of the SMS Equipment's team of specialists that support equipment in Canadian and US mines in some of the toughest conditions on the planet. As Ron says, we do what it takes to keep equipment operating at its required level of production in any terrain.

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