By Lee Buchsbaum

Editor’s Note: This article was commissioned prior to the Upper Big Branch explosion and completed during the rescue efforts. At the time this edition went to press, several of the safety officials quoted herein were directly involved in the rescue efforts. Many of the mine rescue teams involved in the rescue efforts received some training at the academy.

Located in the heart of coal country, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Logan (SWVC&TC) initiated its miner training program in 2006. With a special emphasis on ultra-realistic safety, disaster and fire training as well as emergency response, it has rapidly grown into a regional and national leader. Carl Baisden, director of the academy, has almost 40 years of experience in coal production, mining operations, management, and emergency services training. He began his career as a coal miner in 1976 and a year later began his firefighting training. When SWVC&TC began planning its new training program, Baisden was asked to direct it. His years of experience and his ability to integrate safety and fire training into all aspects of miner training were the reason they chose him.

“We have been specifically tasked with evaluating the training needs of the industry, responding rapidly, and providing them the real world training that they’ve requested,” said Baisden. “What we’ve found is that mining companies are embracing this type of cross training at rapid rate. Producers are being heavily scrutinized and need to train fire teams. We have found that nearly across the boards, management recognizes the need for this type of training. With the advent of rescue chambers and caches, men can have an opportunity to stay underground longer and mine rescue teams will have to find them while they and other emergency crews are fighting fires or addressing other problems.”

During the last three years, SWVC&TC has trained more than 12,000 miners who work throughout the United States. “The positive results are the feedback we receive from the industry and, to a large extent, the safer practices we have been seeing,” Baisden said. “Because of the team SWVC&TC has put together, we’ve been better able to serve our community and prepare this next generation of coal miners for their new careers.”

As it continues to push the limits for safety training, the academy is adding new courses of study and broadening its scope. In 2009, a new associate’s degree in Mine Management was initiated. A hybrid of online and traditional classes, it will eventually be all online. All of the mining academy’s programs are funded through a variety of U.S. Department of Labor and West Virginia state grants, along with industry support.

SWVC&TC’s Logan Campus
Much of SWVC&TC’s training is conducted in a converted cold storage warehouse in downtown Logan. With its 18- to 24-inch thick walls, the four-story, 55,000 sq ft facility, located on the appropriately named Cole Street, has proved to be an ideal training lab. The first floor includes meeting and conference rooms, a lobby and a rescue ready room for trainees to store their equipment. The second and third floors hold most of the training equipment, along with some large classrooms. The basement and the fourth floor function as simulated mines. In addition to the underground mine simulator, the facility features a table top mine simulator and a dispatch technical lab. The building’s third floor also has an ergonomics lab, a mine rescue training unit and a medial training lab.

SWVC&TC simulated mines function as multiple labs where the apprentice students will complete and develop skills and tasks that an entry level coal miner would probably do within the first two years—everything from ventilation to gas testing, building stoppings and seals to roof support, Baisden said.

The upper floor and basement can simulate two different mine situations. The simulated mine in the basement has a height of around 50 to 60 inches. Both simulated mines have refuge chambers and stoppings. When it comes time for training, the mines are set up to include obstacles for the miner trainees and something even more important to be prepared for in an emergency—injured people.

Working with the West Virginia State regional education service authority (RESA) group, the academy also has an emergency training center. “The RESA group test and certifies emergency responders in the state,” Baisden said. “In conjunction with them and other agencies, we are able to do heavy rescue in a confined space, with an emphasis on basic to advanced firefighting techniques. We set up multiple lab stations to recreate scenarios in a prep plant, a warehouse or underground.”

One of SWVC&TC’s newest instruction tools is the custom built 48-ft mobile simulated smoke trailer and lab. Featuring a simulated rescue chamber and built in multiple task labs, the new trailer is the first mobile unit of its kind. “As the miner evacuates through the entries, he will see a graphic visualization of a flame at a distance,” Baisden said. “He will have to make a decision as to what direction to go. He will have to attach and connect his team up to a lifeline which is bolted into ceiling, and he will encounter the rescue chamber and will have to activate it.”

Inside the simulated rescue chamber, trainees will be tasked with determining changes in the external environment which they will then have to respond to. They will also be tasked with deciding when to leave the chamber. “As they leave, they will go through several predetermined areas where they will traverse an overcast while listening and reacting to the sounds of roof falls, flame and mine phone communications,” Baisden said.

The dark interior has also been created in a way that the trainee will often be unable to attain steady footing. “That helps the miners learn ways to safely advance while preventing injuries as they make their escape,” Baisden said. “By going through this trailer simulator and encountering and dealing with challenging, changing conditions they are able to strengthen their problem solving skills and increase their confidence. Not only does it help build teamwork for new rescue teams, it also helps foster leadership skills.”  

Designed in large part by Baisden and with the input of several coal producers and safety professionals, the 48-foot trailer was built, constructed and assembled by Mine Lifeline in nearby Chapmanville. As a mobile unit, it can go anywhere a highway vehicle can travel. It also can be used as a skill sharpener facility for mine rescue teams between mine rescue seasons. “Best of all, we can bring this training opportunity directly to them,” Baisden said.

Instructors & Curricula at the Academy

SWVC&TC has almost two-dozen full time and adjunct professors. Because they are part of Mine Rescue Task Force One, the instructors all have varied expert skill sets, from extensive fire fighting, mine management to advanced medical training. “These are some of the most passionate and tireless professionals I’ve ever had the honor to work with,” Baisden said. “When you put them all together, you have a group of can do and will do, ready-to-go guys. They are a group of visionaries who can layout a plan, put the components together, and bring it to fruition. That’s what most training situations lack.”

In addition to hands on training, in the classes SWVC&TC also discusses the history of the industry. They do this in the hope that by learning the lessons of the past, they will be able to avoid the dangers of the present. “Unfortunately learning and understanding that past is one of the biggest failures of the mining industry,” Baisden said. “We don’t keep history moving and advancing forward, which is why it too often repeats itself. Our instructors work hard on teaching our miners how and why they have earned their professionalism. Each class gets that segment.”

With more than 20 years of underground coal mining experience, Senior Instructor Pete Browning is also a trained paramedic and firefighter. He has worked as both a professional in mining and in the rescue field. He teaches fire and rescue, mining classes, and incident management.

J.D. Morris, one of the academy’s adjunct instructors, has more than 10 years in mining and mine management. He’s held various supervisory roles, and has fire and rescue training. He teaches most of the school’s underground apprentice mining classes because of his age. At 29, he relates better to many of the young recruits. “This generation grew up with computers and video games. He understands that and he helps our older instructors bridge that gap,” Baisden said.

Instructor Perry Job is an ex-safety technician for a large coal corporation, and has many years of surface and underground experience. He is also a professional paramedic and firefighter.

Together, the academy has more than 20 instructors with surface, underground, prep plant, mine rescue, and heavy rescue experience. “They are a wealth of knowledge,” Baisden said.

Task Force One
In cooperation with the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training, SWVC&TC also operates and maintains a mobile technical and rescue response unit known as “Task Force One.” Made up of five vehicles, the unit is designed to supplement and enhance mine rescue efforts with advanced technical rescue, emergency and communication equipment. Its availability also expands training options and locations for mine rescue teams throughout the region.

Task Force One is equipped with light towers, rescue jaws and cutters, ropes for vertical rescue, portable generators, medical and emergency response equipment, airlift bags, and mobile breathing gear—equipment to respond to as many situations as possible.

The Mobile Command Unit (Command One) can also function as a mobile command center from which to centrally organize, monitor and direct disaster response. Roughly the size of a city bus, Command One has more than a dozen computer work stations and the latest in GPS and other satellite communications.

The vehicle can also set up a portable weather station and set up a helicopter landing zone. “Task Force One is equipped with the latest technology and advanced rescue equipment available. Some of these include heavy pneumatic tools, down hole borehole cameras capable of 2,000 foot drops, and dive equipment,” Baisden said.

In addition to Command One, the Lite One Unit features several portable light towers, an air storage and replenishing system and a portable generator. Heavy 1 Unit features rescue jaws and cutters, a torch and rope rescue system, thermal imaging technologies, and medical rescue equipment.

Changing the Course for the 80-Hour Refresher
The academy also provides 80-hour underground training courses and 40-hour surface mine apprenticeships. Each year it provides an 8-hour retraining course to make sure emergency responders stay at the top of their game. Miners can also complete EMT certification, mine foreman classes for both underground and surface miners, and electrician and belt examiner certification, among other things.

Almost universally throughout the industry, the mandatory annual 8-hour retraining session is dreaded by nearly everyone involved. Trainees often sit in the same room for eight hours while one instructor robotically goes through a series of lessons that, by lunchtime, nearly each student has tuned out. SWVC&TC turned this failing model on its head by rotating classes and instructors, having each instructor teach components they specialize in. “This approach draws the men in and keeps their attention. As a result, they participate more, and because of the variety of instructors, they also change classes, take breaks, and have time to socialize a bit with their classmates,” said Baisden.

For their 80-hour course, if a trainee is not dressed, the academy assigns them a basket and they are given a certain time to get into their mining gear and be in the classroom and seated at a specified time. If they are not present at that time, the doors are locked and they are not allowed to come to class. “They’ve set up a tracking system throughout the building—very similar to what we use underground. If a miner goes to the bathroom, they have to check in with the tracker. They have to check in and when a trainee is ready to leave, they have to call him. It’s just like that in the mines and that’s the level of realism they bring to the training, at all levels,” said Bill Tolliver, mine rescue team coordinator, CONSOL Energy.

SWVC&TC also has a large electrical lab for maintenance training. “There’s more hands on participation in that 8-hour annual retraining session now than ever before. Over the last three years it’s continued to grow in popularity and we’ve continued to innovate. As a result, we’ve kept our repeat base, but are growing in attendance by over 30% a year,” Baisden said.

Real World Training Exercises
The real world situations that SWVC&TC creates are much more visceral training models than the traditional mine competition. “With our hands-on labs, individual team members have to meet much greater physical demands than on the practice fields. In our labs, you’re going to have to prove it. You’re going to have to do the real deal,” Baisden said.

The academy’s ultimate goal is to create effective simulations that, after a major event like UBB, would give students the confidence that “they were prepared because of what you put in front of us,” said Baisden.

Searching for that real world training situation, in the summer of 2009, CONSOL Energy sent all of its 162 mine rescuers from teams located throughout Appalachia and Utah to SWVC&TC for several weeks of intensive training. Each day, Baisden and his staff worked with two to three individual teams and put them through their paces.

For disaster training, the academy’s staff set up their facility downstairs to look, feel and react just like a real coal mine. They created debris fields with a path that continues past it just like after a real explosion. “More than realistic, it’s also very physically demanding, like the real situation. Baisden’s team created some great obstacles. Blocking us in from behind, doing the first aid, excellent smoke, and excellent use of their technology. Their facility was certainly one of the best we have trained in,” said Danny Quesenberry, general manager of mining, Central Appalachian operations, CONSOL Energy. “The bottom floor mine simulator is a little tougher. We worked both the top and bottom. They threw an awful lot at us including stumbling over and finding a number of injured people whose wounds we had to address if not treat.”

The injuries varied too from burns and roof bolt fractures to miners who needed amputations. “I can’t tell you how important it is to practice on something that goes this far to approaching the real thing. Other than not being able to fight a real fire in there, they are doing everything they can to make this as real as possible. This is closest to reality than anything we’ve ever done before,” said Quesenberry.

“I highly recommend that all underground mine rescue teams nationwide go through the Logan facilities at least once a year,” said Quesenberry. “The infrared technology they’ve incorporated, the communications they have at their disposal coupled with the amount of smoke they create makes this a very realistic simulation.”

Another one of CONSOL’s main goals for its recent training was to incorporate more first aid into mine rescue. A new national rule, 2009 was the first year CONSOL has trained for it. “That was the first time any of us have taken an EMT into a mine and then brought them out while also transporting out injured miners. Once outside, we then turned them over the paramedics,” Quesenberry said. Once they had the injured miners out of the mine itself, they carried them into a waiting helicopter. The exercise focuses on proper transport of an injured person, and giving first-responder aid to those injured.

Tolliver came away from the training experience both impressed and even more motivated. “It was great practice. We had to treat each injured miner and then bring them out. We practiced working in conjunction with local paramedics as well. We put an apparatus on the paramedic, took them in with us and then helped them pack out the injured and take them to a real waiting helicopter. The chopper itself was all fired up and waiting for us on a landing pad outside,” he said.

Tolliver specifically praised the use of a stokes-type basket stretcher instead of the more common metal folding stretcher on four wheels. The metal version is more difficult to deal with underground.

Generally, these stretchers come folded up and are found in first and second responder kits. Each stretcher has straps used to secure a patient. However, when transporting a larger injured person, the handles to carry him or her end up underneath he person and make it difficult to keep steady footing. Conversely, a stokes basket wraps around the patient and makes them easier to handle and bring out.

“What Baisden had was fiber backboard that you could put a patient on. With a Stokes basket, folks have a place to put their hands when they are carrying a patient. We then practiced taking this patient through a series of stopping doors, again to simulate real rescue activities. Since training with them, we have purchased these Stokes stretchers and backboards for our underground locations,” said Tolliver.

“SWVC&TC’s training took us to another level in terms of patient care. We practiced having multiple injured patients underground, that’s what I wanted to focus on. Their people were immediately involved when the mine rescue teams arrived. They helped us through the entire process,” said Tolliver.

“For the first time last year we trained on how to rescue people from a shelter. There is a correct way to do that and an incorrect way. In a contest situation, you have to stay on the lifeline. In a real deal at the shelter, you have to get off that line to get through the airlock,” said Tolliver. Once in the shelter you have a new set of challenges to address.

The academy’s style of training takes “seasoned teams to another level and what it does for new teams is unbelievable. Some of my team members have been together for 25 years and several of them told me it was the most up-to-date, physical training they’ve ever done,” said Tolliver.

Buchsbaum is a Denver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in industrial subjects. He can be reached through his Web site at www.lmbphotography.com or by phone at 303-746-8172.