By BILL ARCHER Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD — Say good-bye to carbide lamps and canaries. The 21st Century has arrived in the underground coal industry, and mine rescue teams are incorporating more technologically advanced practices into their competitions in order to prepare for a world where real-time responses can be immediately evaluated to help rescue teams save lives.
This year marks the ninth year that Welch Post No. 1, “Smoke Eaters” have teamed up with Bluefield State College to host a Mine Rescue Team competition. Thirteen teams from throughout the coalfields region came out on a hot day in May to test their skills at the Higginbotham Sportsplex and in Dickason Hall as personnel from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training Office.
“We are trying to make an effort to help these teams use more technology in competition,” Mike Plumley of Welch Post No. 1 said. “MSHA is leading the way for us. For the first time this year, we are doing digital mapping from a command center. We’re still making adjustments as we adapt these changes into our existing technology.
“This year is orientation to the new technology,” Plumley said. “Actually, MSHA and West Virginia both brought their mobile command centers here for us to use. The command centers have the ability to get set up at a remote site and deploy their own tower so they can get cell service. The command centers provide us with anything we would need in the event of a real emergency situation.”
While Plumley was discussing the changing nature of the competition, Dave Green and Grayson Cox of Alpha Natural Resources’ Coal River East mine rescue team were inside MSHA’s command center, communicating step-by-step with their team members as they tackled the challenge prepared by the Welch Post No. 1. Alpha’s Coal River East mine rescue team was the over-all champions in last year’s national mine rescue competition.
While team members examined the diagram of the mine laid out on the baseball field in the Sportsplex, Green and Cox were in wireless radio contact with each team member. One team member in the field mapped out the team’s actions while Green placed the same notations and indicators on a paper map.
At the same time, Cox used an MS Vizio screen to drop-and-drag symbols into the same map on display. Although the screen Cox was using was in an 11X7 inch format, the same technology can be instantly transmitted to a 54-inch screen at MSHA Headquarters in Arlington, Va., or to Charleston, according to one of the MSHA observers watching the teams approach the challenges.
“We have the capability of tracking the hand-held radios of each team member , and to send real time gas readings to the command center,” he said. “Instead of practicing one thing and going out and doing something different when a real emergency comes up, they’re training on what they would actually do in the event of an emergency. The technology is out there. We need to use it to save lives.”
The Smoke Eaters have teamed up with the BSC Center for Applied Research & Technology for the past nine years to make the competitions operate more smoothly, but while the mine rescue teams are practicing their skills, Bruce Mutter, CART director, his staff and volunteers have been working to make the experience more beneficial.
“It’s hot out there today, but it can be hot if they’re working in a mine that’s on fire,” one of the Smoke Eaters volunteers said. “They never know what conditions to expect.”
The MSHA representative said that the radio tracking capability that will go 1,000 feet between repeaters may soon able to change how rescue teams enter mines to conduct a search. “If we know where everyone is, we could do a two-two and two search at each mine entry,” he said. “Until this year, that wouldn’t have been a consideration.”
Plumley said that the Smoke Eaters are working to update the technology in the competition to help the mine rescuers when they are sent to respond to an emergency situation.
The winner of this year’s mine rescue competition was Team Maxxim Shared Blue from Alpha Natural Resources.
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com