By Lee Buchsbaum

In early March 2011, on the steps of the State Capitol, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, along with Upper Big Branch (UBB) victims’ families, coal miners, state leaders and mine safety experts together unveiled West Virginia’s newest mobile safety tool: a new one-of-a-kind mine rescue and atmospheric testing vehicle. The new Command Unit Rapid Response Task Force One was designed by Southern Community and Technical College’s Mine Rescue Task Force 1, the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training, and other safety professionals and responders after their experiences at the UBB disaster in April 2010. The vehicle is part of the state’s rapid deployment system and everything on board is kept ready for use 24/7. Once on site, the truck can be deployed in about 7 minutes.  

While acknowledging there are no simple measures that can be taken to wholly prevent similar disasters from occurring again, always striving to be better equipped is at least one step in the right direction. “I am still saddened by the loss of 29 lives nearly one year ago,” Gov. Tomblin said in a press statement prior to the vehicle’s unveiling ceremony. “The families of the UBB tragedy have said ‘Don’t let this happen again.’ This mine rescue truck is our response to help fulfill that request. We have made sure it is fully equipped to provide mine rescue teams with the tools needed to greatly improve a mine rescue operation if and when called upon in the future.”

The $750,000 one-of-a-kind vehicle includes:
•    Satellite GPS technology for mine mapping, bore hole locating and gas well detection;
•    Multi-station gas chromatograph technology lab with rapid sample analysis;
•    It includes two remote, portable labs that can be deployed for additional sampling requirements;
•    It has advanced lightning and weather detection with a range of up to 300 miles;
•    It has a full-featured mobile office complex with multiple smart boards and engineering equipment;
•    It has advanced inter-agency, inter-operable communications with high-speed military-grade satellite link operating with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and radio over IP;
•    It can do video data recording; and
•    It can assist with internal and external media presentations.

The primary mission of the new rescue truck is for it to be used proactively as a safety tool.  When in use, the vehicle will perform mine site evaluations so the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training (OMHS&T) can identify baseline atmospheric readings to identify those mines with potential atmospheric problems before an accident. The vehicle was designed and built by Spurlock Industries.

The truck’s cost was paid for by funds associated with mine violations that were assessed by the OMHS&T, and by private donations from coal companies.

The Most Up-to-date Equipment
“This is the first and only vehicle like this in the country,” Tomblin said. “I just had one of the brothers of a fallen miner at Sago tell me that had this technology been available, his brother possibly could’ve been saved.”

Southern Community and Technical College’s Mine Rescue Task Force 1 technical staff, led by Director Carl Baisden, will operate the vehicle throughout West Virginia. Like the rest of Task Force 1, it will be stationed at either the Logan or Boone county locations of SWVC&TC because of the school’s central location in the heart of West Virginia’s coalfields.

“The designers were intent on creating a vehicle that would offer us a small footprint and big return on the investment,” Baisden said. “The on-board satellite and radio communications, which include an interoperable narrow and multiband system, will link us with about anyone we need to talk with. We have the capability of up to 60 multiple phone lines.  It has a system that allows us to tether into a facility such as a mining or industrial complex and hook our systems into theirs. We can give them uplinks if they are down, or give them additional support for their over-crowded lines.”

The new truck contains two state-of-the-art gas chromatographs that are lab mounted in the vehicle on air ride systems. Additionally it carries two portable suitcase gas chromatographs. Together, “the four allow us to run gas samples across a spectrum of chemicals that is as up to date as any chemistry lab,” said Baisden.

The vehicle also has the capability to run high-resolution digital video.  “We could be filming the mine site from a 44-ft tower camera. On that tower cam we also have the latest lightning software that will give us a 300-mile range to spot inclement weather and lightning strikes that could be moving across the area,” said Baisden.  This is highly significant. Since Sago, if there is now any type of lightning within a 25-mile range of the mine, crews are evacuated. Lightning also hampered rescue and recovery activities at UBB last April.

“The distance underground coming through the debris fields at UBB caused us to have a three-hour exit time, that’s unacceptable. Having better forecasting will allow us a wider range of measured time and early warnings to safely get the teams out or allow them time to find shelter,” said Baisden, who commented that had the vehicle been at UBB, it would have become the nucleus of rescue and recovery operations.

Spurlock, which engineered the vehicle mainly toward military specs, also designed it ergonomically so that as the day changes to night, the lights inside also change. It has been installed with special seats for technicians, lab personnel and command people who will likely be at their posts for hours at a time monitoring activities.  

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.