A Lifeline in the Dark
New Mine Disaster Safety Simulator Provides Miners With A Realistic Experience
By Ed VanHoose
The rugged faces of the veteran miners with their serious looks and piercing eyes contrast starkly with the nervousness hidden behind a thin layer of determination on the faces of the young miners. They greet each other with a studied familiarity while the room quickly settles into an air of open camaraderie. They have come for a valuable lesson. These men must learn to survive a mine disaster.
Their lives could depend upon what they learn here today.
Safety training efforts have ramped up in an attempt to meet tighter federal regulations stemming from the 2006 explosion in the Sago mine of West Virgina. There, 13 people were trapped underground for 42 hours, leaving only one survivor. Prior to the new regulations, refresher safety courses were traditionally offered only once per year.
“As a result of the Sago disaster, the regulations now require hands-on training once each quarter, in which all underground miners go through this kind of hands-on training trying to get realistic expectations of what they might encounter,” says John Howard, Associate Dean of the Mining Program for Illinois Eastern Community Colleges (IECC) just before the training session.
John Howard holds up a ball, attached to the lifeline, which indicates a door to allow trapped miners to access alternate escape routes.
Directional cones strung along the lifeline in the new Mobile Mine Emergency Training Vehicle (MMETV) allow trainees to determine the correct direction to find an exit. Trainees slide their hands over the line. When they encounter the small end of the cone first, they know they are moving toward safety.
A corkscrew strung on the lifeline indicates a refuge chamber location.
Howard begins the class with the safety features familiar to the miners, and then quickly moves on to the new devices. Several new apparatus have been added to the lifeline recently. The lifeline is a cable on which is mounted various types of tactile equipment to indicate directions to miners.
“Miners, if they can’t see, they can find the lifeline and it will lead them to safety,” says Howard.
The most notable tool in the newly revamped training program comes in the form of a giant red and white mobile training vehicle parked just outside the training facility. In operation since June 5, the Mobile Mine Emergency Training Vehicle (MMETV) simulates conditions miners might encounter in a mine disaster.
Howard’s face lights up as he shows off the vehicle before the class gets a chance to experience the realistic environment offered inside the unit.
“The interior control panel lets me manage how much smoke is present in the vehicle, and the temperature inside. If you look at the LCD display you can see thermal-imaging and infrared cameras so we can observe trainees in a smoke-filled environment,” says Howard. “We also have an intercom system so we can hear everything they are saying. It’s two-way so I can also talk to them.”
A tour of the active training portion of the vehicle reveals steel doors that can be manipulated into innumerable configurations to provide a unique experience every time a group of trainees enters. The lifeline and directional devices stretch throughout the chamber. A cache of Self Contained Self Rescuers (SCSRs), personal kits miners use to obtain breathable air, sits hidden to one side, and a mock entry to a refuge chamber lies along another path.
Once the doors close, a strobe light and loud music from hidden speakers disorients occupants. From the control panel Howard touches a button and the chamber quickly fills with smoke. It only takes a few seconds to realize the danger of encountering this type of environment unprepared. Trainees must rely solely on their sense of touch, and their connection with the lifeline, to navigate the maze.
Standing in the doorway Howard seems at ease in the swirl of the smoke, even as it begins to hide him from view.
“Once a year the regulations require training is done in obscured vision. We used to do this by bringing a smoke generator into the building, and smoke up the room, much to the dismay of everyone else in the building,” Howard says. “They don’t care much for that!”
The strobe reflects off the smoke, further devouring his form, while the music drowns his voice.
“This is only a little smoke,” Howard yells over the music. “When the trainees go through, the chamber will be completely blacked out.”
The mobile unit is a recent addition sponsored by the Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, Illinois Office of Coal Development, Peabody Energy, Big Ridge, Inc., and Knight Hawk Coal.
Back in the classroom, Howard demonstrates each of the new additions to the lifeline. Trainees will have to identify several new markers to successfully navigate free from a mine disaster. Specifically, new markers indicate refuge chambers, additional direction markers, and door markers that indicate alternate escape ways. Hands-on training with the SCSRs follows a fast-paced description of the kits.
“SCSRs must provide at least one hour of oxygen to a miner in case of an emergency, but many last much longer,” says Howard.
Much controversy surrounded the insufficient amount of SCSRs in the Sago mine. As a result, mine administrations have gone to great lengths to ensure there are adequate numbers of these kits located throughout the mine, even with the high cost of the units.
“I’m guessing there are between 1,000 and 1,300 SCSRs underground, at $500-$600 a piece,” says Howard.
Currently, the Patiki Mine located just outside of Carmi, Ill. employs around 240 miners. It is overstaffed by approximately 50 miners who are undergoing training for a new mine in West Kentucky. That means there are around four SCSRs available per employee.
In addition to the greater abundance of SCSRs in the mines, new regulations also call for refuge chambers closer to the active mining site.
“Within 2,000 feet of the working facers there has to be a refuge chamber,” says Howard. “We call it a rescue alternative now, but it is a rescue chamber big enough to hold everybody who might be inside at that point and provide them with oxygen, carbon dioxide scrubbing materials, food, and water for 96 hours.”
The miners have jokingly nicknamed these chambers “tin cans” and “coffins.” With such grotesque nicknames, the use of refuge chambers seems in doubt, but even in the extreme circumstances of the Sago disaster, rescuers reached the trapped miners in less than 48 hours. Since refuge chambers are stocked with enough provisions to last well beyond that, miners forced to use a chamber would certainly find a greater increase in survival rates.
All of these measures are intended to provide a safe work environment for the men. The workers at the Patiki mine are no strangers to safety. Their lobby contains an overflowing trophy case that speaks volumes about their dedication to the well-being of miners.
John Howard echoes the pride exhibited by the trophy case when he says, “Illinois, up until last year had, to my knowledge, the longest run of fatal free years in coal mining, probably in the United States, maybe in the world.”
Unfortunately on Oct. 16, 2008 one young miner lost his life in a tragic mine-related accident. Prior to that, Illinois had over five years without a single fatality.
Howard describes the five-year period as, “pretty amazing” saying, “Our record was outstanding.”
Walk-in steel emergency refuge chambers can operate from a main power source indefinitely, or from a battery back-up. All Strata chambers include an airlock compartment for purging the air, seating, storage, food, water, gas monitor, first aid and a toilet.
The Strata Safety Portable Fresh Air Bay is an inflatable chamber that is folded up and stored in a protective steel container until needed. In an emergency the Fresh Air Bay is inflated out of the steel skid using compressed air cylinders. Supplies provided include water, food, a gas monitor, flashlights, first aid kits and a toilet.
Electric cooperatives have a vested interest in keeping coal miners safe.
“In Illinois, the vast majority of electricity comes from coal,” said Phil Smith, the Director of Communications for the United Mine Works of America. “A safe coal miner is a productive coal miner that helps keep the lights on.”
Mine accidents not only affect the lives of those involved, but also affect the cost to produce electricity. Accidents cause mines to temporarily shut down, which in turn can increase the cost of electricity.
Daryl Donjon, the President/CEO of Wayne-White Counties Electric Cooperative says, “From my position, coal mine safey is important to cooperatives because of the economic load they bear, and for job development in rural areas. Safer mines operate better, have less shutdowns, and make the long-term need for coal more sustainable.”
With all of the efforts underway to produce cleaner, more efficient methods of using coal for electricity production, the human factor of keeping miners safe can be lost in the shuffle. Founded around the principles of member participation, cooperatives have always understood the human element behind technology.
“Since cooperatives generate energy through coal, our goal is to continue using coal in a clean, safe manner,” says N. Duane Noland, President/CEO of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC). “Cooperatives understand mining can be very dangerous. We have a duty to the community to be sure that miners are safe. After all, coal mines are generally located in rural areas, and the miners are our members. We want members to be safe.”