The 2018 surface mine rescue contest hosted by the Florida Mine Safety Program included a scenario with an extraction from submerged equipment. The program’s rulebook for surface contests will be reviewed by the private sector before final approval by MSHA, which is expected to occur in the first half of 2022. (Photo: Florida Mine Safety Program)

As a standardizing rulebook for surface mine rescue contests nears final approval, leading suppliers develop advanced solutions to digitize processes and support teams

by jesse morton, technical writer

The Florida Mine Safety Program, a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) State Grants Program within the Florida Public Safety Institute, finalized the first draft of a unified, comprehensive rulebook for regional and national surface mine rescue contests.

The draft will go to MSHA in December and will be subject to a question and comment period from the private sector. After that, with final approval from MSHA, it could be used as early as May 2022 in a regional contest in Florida, the program said.

“We have volunteered to use these rules and see if they can stand up and be tested,” said Kim Allen, mine rescue event program specialist. “The hopes are that the national rules will be approved by MSHA, adopted and published, and we would be able to host the first national surface mine contest using these rules.”

The draft is the culmination of an effort that started in 2016 with the first discussions on holding surface mine rescue contests at the institute, a division of Tallahassee Community College, in Tallahassee, Florida.

The institute had the equipment, land and infrastructure to host events, offer training and hold competitions. “In 2017, the Birmingham District Office gave us the opportunity to speak with the powers that be in Arlington to gain support,” Allen said. MSHA approved a contest on a scenario involving an extraction from a submerged machine in Tallahassee in 2018, a confined space scenario contest in 2019, and an extraction and fire suppression scenario contest in 2020.

The program launched a national rules advisory board in March 2021. “There are 22 stakeholders on the advisory board,” Allen said.

Committees focused on specific contest scenario rules formed the following month. “Committees were established for the critical components within the competition, that being first aid, rope rescue, confined space, firefighting, hazmat, extraction and then general topic areas,” Allen said.

The rulebook is currently expected to go live in the first half of 2022. Afterward, it will be used in regional competitions before use in the national surface mine rescue competition in 2023, said Karen Miller, manager, Florida Mine Safety Program. “We are pressing and so far we are meeting all our goals,” she said.

One of the industry stakeholders on the advisory board, Kent Armstrong, global business development manager, Draeger, said the rules are needed to ensure contests accomplish their goals and serve their purpose. “Mine rescue competitions should be set up and designed to prove the efficiencies and expose the deficiencies in your mine rescue training program,” he said. “How else can you, without a real-world emergency, do that without a properly managed contest?”

Draeger’s role on the board fits with its long, storied history of supporting mine rescue teams around the world at events and competitions and in mine disasters and emergencies. “Manufacturers of the equipment have to be part of the solution,” Armstrong said.

“We are working on new technologies and new programs to enhance and support the rescue teams during their missions, servicing of the equipment, training on the equipment, and when maintaining it to proper operational levels,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution not part of the problem.”

Developing New Technologies

Increasingly among those new technologies being developed by Draeger are those enabling high speed communications, monitoring capabilities and critical data transfer. More recently, the supplier bought a stake in Focus FS, which makes “a software-as-a-service platform that digitizes critical operations data for people and assets,” Draeger reported.

“It offers different modules such as health, safety and environment, and E-Mustering, incident management and asset tracking,” the supplier said. “The customer can choose from a range of modules and create a solution that best fits their company needs.”

Draeger and Focus FS developed a digitized mine rescue team management system, offered as a package, which is now in use by some teams. “We’ve had positive results in putting it into service, with the rescue teams interfacing with the ability to support equipment and management before and during the mission,” Armstrong said.

“It supports a multipronged approach,” he said. “Basically, we are looking at the mine rescue emergency, during the emergency, the preparation of the teams before, collecting data and information, helping support to develop from command-and-control to the teams, quicker and accurate communications, and the ability to store that data and information for post-incident use. That is one of the most critical things to have.”

The system is meant to help replace processes previously dependent on paper files and manual recordkeeping. “All the checks are done with the software system on a tablet,” Armstrong said. “That information is stored and then transmitted to surface.”

The software also digitizes some mine rescue equipment management processes. “We can maintain and check and make sure that the equipment that was used by the teams, and that the apparatus, the radios, all the things that come into play, are calibrated and maintained and checked and serviced and meet the manufacturer’s and agency’s recommendations.”

It can digitize certain personnel management processes. “Knowing the personnel, when they’ve been trained, what they’ve been trained on, do they have their medicals updated, what risks do they have such as health issues?” he said.

“You don’t want to send somebody that is 50 years old that might have passed the medical a while back but has hurt his foot or his knee or has injured his arm since then,” Armstrong said. “This data and information should be readily available when you get into this emergency to know who is available to you and what condition those people are in.”

The system speaks to trending demand for digitizing solutions in the mine rescue space, Armstrong said. “We see it in the longer term scenario,” he said. “Data and collection of information is becoming very key.”

Currently, the system is being developed to automatically transfer data and information to and from equipment, sensors, surface computers, and command-and-control computers. It will help enable management to determine quickly the status of mine rescue team members and of their gear. Draeger seeks to tailor the system to the direct needs of customers, which means it needs their input, Armstrong said.

“We want to work with the mines, we want to work with the organizations, we want to be part of their business,” he said. “This way we can have the equipment serviced. We can have it maintained. We can upgrade the technologies available to enhance your programs.”

Right now, acting on that desire means serving on mine rescue contest rulemaking boards. “We want to be part of the competitions,” he said. “We want to know what you are training on. How are you developing your mine emergency plan. What are the levels of that plan? How can we help mitigate the risks as a manufacturer? Include us in that communication.”

Above, an alarm on the SENTINEL Mine Rescue Handset signals a gas sensor reading that is beyond the set threshold. (Image: IWT)

Updates Offer Clear Comms and Data

Innovative Wireless Technologies (IWT) announced recent upgrades to its SENTINEL Mine Rescue System. Now available is lithium Smart Battery, the Portable Mesh Node, the Portable Gateway Node, support of all the MX6 sensors, and automatic notifications of gas events on the SENTINEL Mine Rescue Handset.

The updates will improve the capabilities, response times and safety of mine rescue teams using the system, said Matthew Fisher, program manager, IWT.

IWT worked closely with MSHA on the rechargeable lithium battery.

“While lead-acid batteries are common in mining, MSHA-approved lithium batteries are less so,” Fisher said. “IWT designed and certified lithium batteries to power both permissible and non-permissible equipment. IWT performed thorough testing to ensure optimal design for use in a wide temperature range.”

The Smart Battery is a portable power source that has a built-in radio transceiver so it can connect to the system and be remotely monitored and controlled. It powers both infrastructure components and an IP camera. It is lighter than a lead-acid battery, and offers better runtime.

Strata Worldwide will supply the BioPak 240 Revolution breathing apparatus in much of the Americas. (Photo: Strata Worldwide)

Moving to the lithium Smart Battery “to support system components greatly impacts two very important aspects of mine rescue: rapid exploration and maintenance,” Fisher said. “These new batteries are much lighter and easier to carry, power fiber switches and cameras, and give backup power to extend runtime. The lithium batteries also last for up to 10 years before needing replacement, which is twice or thrice that of lead-acid.”

The system now supports all the available sensors for Industrial Scientific’s MX6 iBrid six-gas monitor.

IWT’s MX6 Mesh Interface pairs the monitor to a Handset, and sends data across the wireless infrastructure, company literature said. The data is used by software on a command center laptop.

Supporting all the available sensors for the monitor means the system now offers teams greater situational awareness. “While many teams only require O2, CO and CH4, there is a growing desire to see more gas types,” Fisher said.

“For example, H2S and NO2 can both be monitored with the MX6,” Fisher said. “MX6 sensors can be left unattended to monitor conditions and transmit gas data back to the command center laptop, something not possible if still spot-checking gas by hand.”

Similarly, the SENTINEL Wireless Gas Monitor (WGM) can be dropped off somewhere to measure CO, O2 or CH4. Now the measurements can go into notifications automatically sent to the handset. That puts “data and alarm signals directly in the worker’s hand,” Fisher said.

The supplier worked “closely with mines” on the capability, he said. “When developing persistent gas monitoring using IWT’s WGM, the team identified a need to have accurate information quickly.”

The handset notifications provide “visual, audible and vibration signals,” he said. “Other options for these notifications are limited to audible and visual boxes installed at strategic locations, and information relaying from system operators.”

The handset is intrinsically safe, has AES encryption, and supports voice, text and tracking. It can be integrated into popular SCBA masks.

The updates further establish the system as the gold standard for the industry, Fisher said. “It is the most complete communications and data system, providing clear digital voice and texting, personal and persistent gas monitoring and notifications, video and extended battery power, and secure and redundant networking with zero configuration,” he said. “The system is used by federal Mine Emergency Operations (MEO), state teams, private teams and training academies throughout the country.”

Benefits include ease of deployment, versatility, improved awareness and response times, and integrated tracking. The SENTINEL network is unique in its “robustness” and ability “to form, optimize and maintain itself,” Fisher said. “We built it with reliability, security, and ease of use in mind.”

Other system components include the Portable Mesh Node, the Portable Gateway, two antennae, the Fiber Optic Switch, an IP Camera, and the Mine Rescue Dispatch Station. The station, a laptop, enables fresh-air-base and command-center personnel “to visually manage the ongoing operation,” IWT reported. Tracking, gas readings and “mine map smartboard coordination between the command center and the fresh air base are all managed via the laptop dispatch stations.”

The system “provides constant communications with all team members, from exploration to command center, and it does so with minimal requirements of the user,” Fisher said.

The components are “rugged and easy to use” and deploy, he said. “Simply power on, check signal and deploy,” Fisher said. “No configuration is required to even establish or grow the network. It is automatic.”

The system can be adopted in stages, or as a turnkey solution to “outfit entire team trailers,” Fisher said. “Some teams begin with simple infrastructure radios, known as Portable Mesh Nodes, and a few encrypted handsets. Others begin with complete communications, tracking, and gas monitoring, and outfit their team command center with
the Dispatch Station for full operational awareness.”

However it is adopted, the system and its components are “compatible to federal MEO teams’ equipment, and many states as well,” Fisher said. “New teams typically receive initial system training in the classroom and assisted practice in the mine,” he said. “Each year, teams opt to receive additional training and equipment checkups.” Typically, teams train with IWT annually or every other year.

The supplier supports training both in person and remotely. “IWT also repairs its products in house, and offers options for technical support,” he said.

Adoption can help a team align with others and with the regulating agencies. “MSHA MEO has dedicated stations throughout the U.S. that provide technical support utilizing IWT’s communications and tracking equipment,” Fisher said. “IWT’s Mine Rescue System is used for training, competition, rescue and recovery efforts each year.”

Historically, the system has been used repeatedly to “rescue lost persons in old mines, to recover burning mines, and to save individuals from loss of life during emergency situations in permanent installation mines,” Fisher said. “Many times, IWT hears feedback about the time savings of having constant, clear communications and real-time tracking.”

That is the best possible return on investment, he said. “People in dangerous situations deserve the best tools to be safe and productive, and IWT provides that.”

The Fallen Heroes Mine Rescue Event at the West Virginia Training and Conference Center uses Strata Connect Wireless, a communications and tracking system that, among other things, supports and helps digitize command center processes. (Photo: Strata Worldwide)

Revolutionary Tech for Evolving Ops

Strata Worldwide reported it will distribute, service and support the BioPak 240 Revolution breathing apparatus throughout most of the U.S., Canada and certain Central and South American countries. The unit is made in Pennsylvania, U.S., and Biomarine will provide support to Strata and its customers.

Strata said the apparatus will complement its other state-of-the-art mine rescue offerings. “The 240R is a high-quality, reliable unit, and it is already highly respected by first responders across multiple industries,” said David Maust, general manager, refuge and breathing systems.

The BioPak 240 Revolution is a 4-hour, closed-circuit, self-contained breathing apparatus. “It is built with advanced technologies that deliver extended reliability, lower maintenance, and increased user comfort and safety,” Maust said.

The unit recycles breathing gas to conserve oxygen for longer use. “The BioPak’s closed-circuit positive-pressure system provides greater protection against the ingress of external atmospheric toxins,” he said.

It features a solid core carbon dioxide scrubber using Orbsorb technology cartridges. “Factory-sealed cartridges eliminate handling of loose chemicals and manual refilling, making it quicker and safer,” Maust said.

Coolant canisters control the breathing gas temperature. A hydration system supplies drinking water. The mask includes a specialized anti-fog film and wipers.

Benefits include ease of use. The system “automatically adjusts to wearer breathing rates,” Maust said. It has single-point activation, and features easy-to-read monitor gauges.

The apparatus is reputed for its reliability and simplicity of use, he said. “Fewer parts makes units easier to maintain, clean and test,” he added.

The system has a “protected breathing chamber, completely enclosed with hard plastic to eliminate risks of puncture or tearing,” Maust said. “The Biopak pressure regulator has been used in breathing systems for more than 40 years without the need for factory rebuilds or calibrations.”

Strata will offer customers that adopt the apparatus with training and support. The learning curve is short for teams familiar with rebreathers.

The BioPak 240 Revolution and a Strata Fresh Air Bay inflatable chamber made a splash at the Fallen Heroes Mine Rescue Event at the West Virginia Training and Conference Center, and at the nearby Sylvester Mine Rescue Contest in September.

Strata volunteered to outfit the simulated mine at the training center with its wireless communications and tracking system, said Cody Branhan, field service representative, Strata Worldwide. “The system is designed to be fully operational post-accident and can be used for two-way communication and real-time location tracking during a real-life mine emergency.”

The Rescue Event tested teams on a scenario wherein an injured person needed rescue, and was situated in the chamber. “This individual had the StrataConnect MC2 (Mine Communicator) handheld device, and was communicating back and forth with people in the command center outside of the mine,” Branham said. “Team personnel in the command center were able to watch the text communication as it happened on a projector screen displaying Strata’s user interface.”

It was the first such event at the training center involving a tracking and communications system. “Everyone in the command center was able to watch and communicate with the patient in the chamber,” Branham said.