MSHA, partners test new mine emergency operations response system at CONSOL’s Harvey mine

By Donna Schmidt, Field Editor

It is the scenario no one wants to see happen: a mine emergency with miners trapped underground, perhaps injured. What happens first, what is the plan? Every minute that passes is crucial, as we have learned from the past.

Preparation is key in such instances, as is consistent and clear communications, and the best way to achieve both is planning and practice. Enter the increased interest in mock drills, which themselves are getting a boost from ever-changing technology.

On April 8, one such drill was conducted that could change the face of the mine rescue: a mine emergency response drill, or MERD, at CONSOL Energy’s Harvey mine in southwestern Pennsylvania that incorporated a new underground wireless communications system to transmit voice in real time along with video and data between the underground incident area and a surface command center and a mobile command trailer.

By midmorning, a group of miners simulating an emergency situation were in place and video was successfully being sent to the mine office command center staffed by Consol officials as well as members of the state’s Special Medical Response Team (SMRT), which exists under the umbrella of Pennsylvania’s Department of Deep Mine Safety.

A SMRT physician, part of the team’s collection of medical and emergency experts, headed up instruction as members of eight of CONSOL’s mine rescue teams began their trips to the section where the simulated emergency was staged (the Bailey, Enlow Fork, Buchanan and Harvey mine rescue teams participated in this exercise) some 2,000 ft inby.

Just outside of the mine office, positioned beside a throng of emergency vehicles, was Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) mobile command center, where federal officials were able to monitor gas levels and other systems underground along with tracking the movements of the rescue teams.

By noon, using the technology incorporated in what MSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main has already called a “game changer” for the mining industry, the mock emergency — which involved a miner trapped beneath a vehicle after a jack failed — was successfully responded to and all simulated injuries remedied. Surface personnel were gratified by the success of the exercise as well as the system’s performance.

Officials brief mine rescue team members and surface emergency responders prior to the April 8 exercise at the Harvey mine.Officials brief mine rescue team members and surface emergency responders prior to the April 8 exercise at the Harvey mine.

 
Getting the Tech to Now

According to Main, the system — the technology within has been developed by Innovative Wireless Technologies (IWT) — is the result of work the two first collaborated on in 2010, when the agency kicked off efforts to find and remedy “gaps” in the nation’s mine emergency preparedness.

In the years that have followed, the initiative has attained notable headway, including direct communication technology that brings together the surface with those underground; new mapping technology that allows the command center and other rescuers to watch the progress of the advancing rescue team in real time; new atmospheric monitoring technology featuring sensors that can be left at locations in the mine as rescuers move forward, or are forced to retreat, that will continue to transmit data; and also upgraded MSHA command centers designed to manage the new information streams and quickly relay critical information to others coordinating the mine emergency.

“Mine rescue teams will now be able to communicate directly with the surface command center and have explorations mapped in real time,” Main said in a conference that followed the simulation, joined by IWT Vice President Phil Carrier, who was also on hand to oversee the technological side of the event. “The old method of relaying the results of exploration through multiple persons — almost like a ‘pony express’ system that often led to miscommunication — is over.”

?MSHA head Joseph Main offers a briefing on the technology of the communications system in the surface command center.MSHA head Joseph Main offers a briefing on the technology of the communications system in the surface command center.

 

The term “pony express” may bring with it images of days gone by, but the roots of this effort for complete, cutting-edge mine emergency preparedness are actually much more recent. Among the real emergencies that have prompted this work: the 2006 explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 men died and another was left with serious injuries; the Aracoma mine fire in 2007 that killed two, the Crandall Canyon collapse in August 2007 (nine total fatalities) and even the Upper Big Branch explosion on April 5, 2010, where 29 workers perished.

John Urosek, chief of mine emergency operations for MSHA’s Pittsburgh Safety and Health Technology Center, said that the April event — the first in what will be a series of MERDs — achieved exactly what everyone involved was aiming for: proof that both the human and technological components would respond as designed and that, should a true emergency arrive tomorrow, the system as a whole would be ready.

“CONSOL has been working with MSHA closely during the development of this new system,” he said of MSHA’s decision to host at the Harvey mine. He also noted that, impressively, the CONSOL longwall operation lost no production from its active sections during the entire exercise.

MSHA, which purchased the complete communications system from IWT, had been working through the Holmes Mine Rescue Association to keep the industry informed of its progress. Another partner, Draeger, is involved in the development of a new face piece radio system, and Industrial Scientific has been involved in adapting its gas detection equipment with the system.

The system was designed to be portable, allowing teams to take it virtually anywhere its needed, for both communications and tracking, using a combination of fiber optic and wireless technology. When used with success, as it did at Harvey, it allows for clear communications from the exploring team directly to the command center as well as the visual component to allow officials to see the involved miners as well as underground conditions.

“We think we’re ready to rock and roll with the systems we’ve built,” Main said.

Donning SCBAs, rescuers from some of CONSOL’s teams communicate before heading to the active section.

 
Looking Ahead

As of April 8, the day of the Harvey exercise, the technology was available for use in Pittsburgh, and Main said that MSHA is aiming to have it available in Beckley, West Virginia; Denver, Colorado; Madisonville, Kentucky; and Price, Utah, by the end of the year. Alpha Natural Resources has also reportedly expressed interest in testing the system at two of its coal operations in West Virginia.

Urosek also said that it is working to plan an exercise at a metal/nonmetal mine at some point this year as it schedules additional coal MERDs.

“The long-term goal of MSHA is that this communication equipment will become a standard piece of mine rescue equipment for every mine rescue team,” he said.

Main said one of MSHA’s goals, particularly in the short term, is to equip all four of the agency’s mobile mine emergency units with this state-of-the-art communications, tracking and monitoring system; that will likely occur later this year. Additionally, he wants to see improvements in seismic equipment for better through-the-earth detection of trapped miners; improved robotics for use in lieu of human exploration in underground mines; and also updated training and guidance for command and control during mine emergencies, including the implementation of the systems.

“Together, these improvements will enable faster and safer rescue operations by reducing the potential for miscommunication and providing real-time information to decision-makers,” he said. “Ultimately, it means we will be better prepared to come to the aid of our nation’s miners if danger strikes.”

 


Nationwide Mine Rescue Teams

MSHA has an online tool/reference guide that includes all of the mine rescue teams currently active in the U.S. Broken down by state into two main categories, coal and metal/nonmetal, the resource indicates the number of teams as well as their locations, equip- ment in use, the number of mines each crew covers, and how often members train.

The tool is available at www.msha.gov/minerescue/MAP/ASP/mineres-cuehome.asp.