By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief
Building on the West Virginia Legislature’s action earlier in the year, the Mine Improvement and Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006 called for a communication or control center to monitor communication and tracking/locating systems whenever one or more miners are underground. The control center operator must be a certified underground miner, who is knowledgeable about the mine’s layout, communication network, warning systems, escape-ways, and emergency response plans (ERPs). The mines need to report accidents to the appropriate agencies within 15 minutes of the occurrence.
For the last two years, underground coal miners in the U.S. have experienced an indoctrination interpreting the new communications standards and implementing new technology, while trying to hold costs to a relatively reasonable level. When it came to monitoring systems, underground coal operators had already developed sophisticated atmospheric monitoring systems and they were retrieving and interpreting data from mining and conveying equipment. Since the MINER Act was enacted, however, the proliferation of communications advancements for underground coal mines—leaky feeder, wireless nodes, RFID tagging systems, pagers, permissible handheld radios, etc.—has been incredible. What coal companies need now is a way to effectively manage all of these resources internally. This especially holds true in the case of an emergency.
Oftentimes, safety information and equipment data is widely dispersed. Complicating matters further, the mines operate independently even within the same company. Proper decision-making requires clear and concise information. The control center operator needs to see a complete picture.
When an incident does occur, the response is usually group-oriented and coordinating efforts externally can be difficult. Executing ERPs, following Standard Operating Procedures, making the appropriate notifications, while attending to an injured miner or fighting a mine fire could easily overwhelm mine foremen. If a mine is isolated, it may have trouble locating resources off site. Emergency services and first responders may be using different radio channels or incompatible communication devices.
More underground mines operate in West Virginia than any other state. So, it should come as no surprise that these mines, local suppliers, and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health Safety and Training (OMHST) have led the effort in testing and developing systems to meet the state and federal communication requirements.
A Huntington, W.Va.-based company, Strictly Business Computer Systems (SBCS), with support and encouragement from the Office of WV 3rd District U.S Congressman Nick J. Rahall, teamed up with local and national suppliers to design a mine safety Central Communication Center. This center has the ability to bridge all of the communications systems and aggregate all of the data flowing from the mine and present it in a user-friendly interface for the control center operator. International Resource Partners (IRP), a W.Va.-based coal operator with four underground mines, agreed to test the prototype under a demonstration agreement with the OMHST. While the mine admits to a steep learning curve and an extended period of debugging, they believe the system is nothing short of phenomenal. OMHST is finalizing its evaluation of the demonstration and is looking at approving similar deployments.
The Central Communications Center
The SBCS system, or the Safety and Monitoring (SaM) System, presents information in a meaningful and useful form. It sends immediate and intrusive visual and audible alarms to trained responders. The system deploys on the mine’s private communication channels and it’s built with standards-based proven technology. With auxiliary power supplies and redundant paths of communication, it will not lose a connection.
Coal companies can use SaM to monitor and control multiple mines, which gives them the ability to divide responsibility between locations in response to an incident. The hub of the SaM System, the Central Communication Center, can be located anywhere and control can be transferred from one station to another. Key executives and managers can gain secure remote access over the Internet.
The term interoperability best describes the system. SaM employs standard Ethernet and Internet Protocol (IP) for voice, data, and video communication. SaM connects to systems in mine control rooms with remote control mechanisms and IP audio mixers. The SaM system converts all radio and telephone (cell and PSTN) analog traffic to IP. Consequently, it is compatible with any mine management or control system that supports remote control and with any radio or phone that supports digital or analog transmissions. The standard architecture includes personal computers and Voice over IP (VoIP) phones. The operator has the ability to instantaneously connect previously isolated people, such as first responders, consultants, executives, etc. Resources can be added to a conversation quickly and then removed when no longer necessary.
People can talk seamlessly between devices and execute a coordinated response. The responsible person at the mine can directly manage the delivery of resources. The system operator can quickly conference people together to make informed decisions.
The system also allows the mine to automate policies and standard operating procedures. Once the mine determines which groups need to communicate, when, what order, how (E-mail, text message, page, or voice call) and on what devices, the system can replace the manual notification process. SaM also captures an audit trail for analysis and training of command and control as well as operations management.
For a coal company operating several mines, the direct economic benefits are huge. In the case of IRP, as an example, one SaM Central Communication Center replaces what would have been four or maybe five control centers. Considering that each would have to be manned by a certified miner anytime people were underground, the coal company would be looking at savings that would approach $1 million per year. There is also the cost savings associated with improved operational efficiency. It’s impossible to put a price on the reduced liability benefits of improved emergency response, but suffice it to say it would be enormous.
Installation & Development
SBSC spent two years or more developing technology geared specifically toward the mines with a couple of partners, Carroll Technologies, a West Virginia firm that owns Delta Electric and Carroll Engineering, and Cisco Systems, along with its IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) software. IPICS is a, scalable, comprehensive solution for communications interoperability. It allows push-to-talk communications on radio handsets, networks, laptop and PC clients, telephones, and mobile phones, improving response times and resource collaboration. By sending radio traffic over an IP network, IPICS cost-effectively lets public safety personnel exchange information when they are using incompatible radios. It can facilitate coordinated, incident management response for emergencies and day-to-day operations across multiple agencies, jurisdictions, or departments.
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, IPICS became the tool of choice for first responders. Emergency personnel responding to the Twin Towers found that different departments could not systems that did work became overwhelmed. “To my knowledge, we are the only company using IPICS in a commercial application,” said Mike Owens, president, SBCS. The IPICS software allows the system to convert audio communication sources to standard IP. An operator can then easily create ad-hoc connections that bridge together several communication sources to apply resources intelligently in responding rapidly to routine events as well as emergencies.
“We watched as the mines grappled with integrating new communications technology with older systems and it appeared that they would need an overarching system to bridge devices that were not compatible with conventional communications,” Owens said. “For the mines to consider incorporating a safety related system into operations for daily activities it would also have to improve productivity. Until now, miners simply couldn’t talk radio to telephone to computer to whatever outlying communication that would be on the surface. Mines were losing money from downtime simply because a mechanic couldn’t easily call for a tool or part or couldn’t talk with a machine expert.
“During development, we found that we could grab the information that was being conveyed from an underground communications and tracking system and return that information from multiple mines to a single command center,” Owens said. “As the project evolved, we discovered that combining that interoperability function and the fact that we could grab that communication from each mine directly, meant that we could monitor multiple mines, aid in facilitating operational decision-making and eliminate the fog of war during emergencies.”
When an incident occurs, a lot of people have to be notified, collaborative decisions must be made, and by bringing all of that communication together, Owens explained, the uncertainty is cleared, information is more readily available, and decisions are made based on better data.
Taking a leap of faith, IRP allowed SBCS to install a prototype system that has evolved into a fully operational SaM system. “We were able to take the standard operating procedure for notification from the mine’s ERP and automate it,” Owens said. “In the event of an incident, there is a prioritized list of people that need to be notified in a timely manner. Automation allows the coal company to escalate and de-escalate an incident gracefully. Not every incident requires full escalation, but certainly every incident requires some attention and this system allows us to push that incident to the level of attention that it requires.”
In the event of an incident, the managers on site understand the mine and the miners, and they would be the most useful person for analyzing needs. The SaM operator becomes a helper or facilitator, expediting proper communications while the incident is being managing on site. This logic is consistent with what regulators hoped to achieve with tracking and communications systems—that someone would man the post, understand what’s happening, and could help. “The safety benefits of the technology go beyond response to emergencies,” said Ron Wooten, director, OMHST. “The ability for rapid interconnection of communication averts situations that could lead to injuries thus providing viable accident prevention.”
IRP Tests SaM
Similar to the other mine operators, IRP was wrestling with how it was going to comply with the new communications standards put forward by the State and the MINER Act. “In the beginning it was difficult, especially given the fact that many of these technologies had not been tested in the field,” said John Earles, director of human resources and safety, IRP. “We had worked with Delta Electric and SBCS and we were aware of both companies’ expertise. After looking at what was available with different systems, we ultimately decided to work with them, because we thought that we would not only get the best service, but we would get the best product from a practical sense.” Earles explained that Wooten and OMHST were very supportive and cooperative throughout the entire testing and troubleshooting period.
IRP currently operates four deep mines (Nos. 2, 3, 3A, and 8). The company’s No. 8 mine is the only multi-unit operation. It can operate three sections, but it currently operates two. The others are all single-section mines.
The SaM system monitors all of the mines and the mine managers are quite familiar with all of the attributes. “With everything that takes place on a mine bench, the central control room under normal circumstances frees people to concentrate on business,” Earles said. “All of the monitoring is done by central control room. In the event of an emergency, the responsible people at the unaffected mine sites take local control. The central control room would then handle the lion’s share of the communications work that needs to be done—contacting people, supporting the mine site, etc.—which would make operations go more smoothly in an emergency.”
IRP spent a year on installation, troubleshooting, and development and in September the company sent a letter to OMHST declaring the system fully operational. “We started with an installation at the No. 8 mine,” Earles said. “Once we had it in reasonable shape, we then went to the Nos. 2, 3, and 6 mines. We idled the No. 6 mine and we moved that system to the No. 3A mine.”
The SBCS technology “bolts” on top of the tracking and communications systems as they are installed. For instance, in the No. 8 mine, Delta and IRP completed the cabling for a leaky feeder system and then SBCS followed behind them and performed screen-scrapes from the face back to the control room. “The networks grow with each mine and the overall system evolves as mines open and close,” Owens said. “As they finish an installation, we bolt on top of it.”
All of this technology was new to IRP. “We had to train electricians, operators, etc., and anytime new systems are installed at a mine there are usually issues,” Earles said. “We had to do a little troubleshooting. In the first six to nine months, the system was up and down. Since June, the system has been actively monitoring and used on a daily basis. We have problems occasionally, especially during thunderstorms, but we are getting much better at solving those problems more quickly on our own.”
Last summer, the availability of radios was an issue for the mines in West Virginia. “We had been using radios, but we only had four or five per mine,” Earles said. “All of our people that go underground now have a radio and we would like the vendors to develop smaller units.
“These communication systems do create a bit of challenge from a maintenance perspective,” Earles said. “Cables get cut, readers get bumped by shuttle cars, and electrical glitches occur. The mine is constantly repairing and expanding the infrastructure as it develops.” The mine has to maintain any system as it advances, but Owens also points out that, because a SaM system operator is always watching, the problems are quickly identified. Maintenance personnel aren’t troubleshooting a system in the dark.
Even though IRP is using a Varis leaky feeder network, Matrix tracking technology and Pyott-Boone belt monitoring systems, the SBCS SaM system can work with any tracking or communication system. “We can grab whatever is returned to the surface as data,” Owens said. “Because we are using IP technology, the infrastructure we install can be extended to the whole company’s operation, VoIP [Voice over IP] phone systems for offices, warehouses, guard shacks, etc. They could also have Internet access where none existed before.”
“We are pleased with the system,” Earles said. “It’s doing what the technology will allow. I’m not aware of a deep mine that has 100% coverage of every nook and cranny. Seam height definitely has an effect on the communications and tracking system.
IRP has not used the system in an emergency, but they have formally tested it and it was video-taped. The company conducted two live training exercises, simulating a belt fire and man down incident. “It was planned with a little rehearsal, but there were no second takes,” Earles said. “Once we started the sequence, we did not stop, and the results are on the video.”
Owens remembers an eerie feeling from filming the man down situation. “We were able to put the responsible person in contact with the EMT who was still en route to the mine,” Owens said. “The way the technology works, we can tie in anybody, a trauma surgeon, a specialist, etc. The system saves time, especially when one considers the decision of whether to run to a mine phone and page for help or stay and perform first aid and then notify others. The improvement in being able to reduce the response time for an incident is extraordinary.
“Sometimes we take the technology available to us for granted,” Earles said. “I have been in the mining business for 38 years, worked as section foreman, and the difference this can make in a real emergency is phenomenal both in terms of the amount of time saved and the amount of resources that can be marshaled. It can be done so much more quickly. It has all the safety aspects along with the overall gains in operational efficiency.”