May was Mine Rescue Training Month at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. A series of activities featured a two-day national mine emergency summit with stakeholders and three days of mine rescue skills training at the agency’s academy in Beaver, W.Va.; a mine emergency response drill at the Bailey BMX Mine near Washington, Pa.; and a demonstration at West Virginia University’s Academy of Mine Training and Energy Technologies facility near Morgantown, W.Va. All of these activities underscore the importance, I believe, of furthering mine rescue training throughout the mining industry.
At the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, nearly 60 mine rescue teams from coal mines around the country participated in a series of skills training and competitive events to better prepare them to respond to the next mine emergency. These first responders are, in my opinion, the backbone of mine emergency response – the men and women called upon to do the heavy lifting when mine fires, explosions, roof falls, inundations of water and other such events occur. Preparation for these mine rescue teams involves a considerable amount of dedication, skill and training.
The competitive events included hands-on fire fighting, navigating through thick smoke, applying first aid, and solving a hypothetical problem in a simulated mine emergency to rescue trapped and injured miners. In addition, MSHA had on display several components of its Mine Emergency Operations unit, including the seismic location system, mobile gas laboratory, mine rescue robot and command center vehicle, which recently was equipped with state-of-the-art, surface-to-underground communications and mapping capabilities.
Later in the month, Consol Energy voluntarily shut down its Bailey BMX Mine for an entire day to conduct a mine emergency response drill involving nearly 100 company personnel and participants from the state and federal government. For a company in a production-driven industry, this speaks volumes about Consol’s desire to cultivate the highest level of expertise in mine emergency response.
The simulated mine disaster required miners to retreat to a refuge alternative and await the arrival of mine rescue teams. Nearly 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface, the “trapped” miners successfully tested the effectiveness of MSHA’s seismic location system by pounding on roof bolts to alert those on the surface of their exact location.
Finally, I had the opportunity to visit WVU’s Academy of Mine Training and Energy Technologies facility, which features a simulated underground coal mine and the capability for live fire training for both new and experienced mine personnel, mine rescue teams and fire brigade teams.
I have spent most of my working life involved in more rescue operations and mine emergencies than I’d care to remember. I understand the critical importance of the mine emergency work and training rescue teams undergo.
The members of mine rescue teams, who spend long hours preparing for a mine emergency they hope never happens, deserve the best training and preparation we have to offer.
One of my first actions when I came to MSHA was to direct a review of our readiness for mine emergencies. To this end, we have undertaken a comprehensive mine emergency gap analysis of MSHA, the industry, states and mine rescue teams.
The aim is to examine the mine rescue system for weaknesses and collectively make that system work better. Specifically, we need to look closely at the things that don’t go right during a mine rescue. Where are the shortcomings? What do we need to do to be better prepared? Effective mine rescue entails many different parts working together seamlessly toward one goal. One of the most important things we can do is to prepare ourselves as best we can for a mine emergency.
MSHA, the mining industry and state agencies have been ramping up emergency training, adding equipment and testing new mine emergency technologies, including communication systems, electronic mapping and data sharing that would allow advancing rescue teams and the command centers to be directly connected during underground rescue explorations. Two-way, through-the-earth voice communications technology has been developed and is now being used in some mines. We’ve developed a web-based mapping tool on MSHA’s homepage to help locate mine rescue teams, equipment and vendors to support mine emergency operations, and to provide explicit directions to mine emergency sites.
While we continue to enhance mine rescue, the top priority at MSHA is still this: preventing accidents, injuries and deaths in the nation’s mines, improving working conditions, and thereby, someday precluding the need for mine rescue teams.