October 6, 2012
Coal miners hope never to have to use their rescue skills in earnest.
But when it comes to testing them in competition, Alpha Natural Resources' miners are ready for anything.
Alpha teams hold the top spots in the two national Mine Safety and Health Administration competitions that are held every other year, as well as in a regional competition.
"There are some very good mine rescue teams," said Ronnie Biggerstaff, Safety and Mine Rescue Coordinator for Alpha's Southern Kentucky division. "We're blessed to be part of those elite teams that on any given day can compete."
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration holds nearly 30 regional mine rescue contests in mining regions across the nation each year.
It also holds two biennial national contests: a National Mine Rescue Contest in odd-numbered years — that was in Columbus, Ohio last fall — and a Nationwide Mine Rescue Skills Competition in even-numbered years. That one just took place Oct. 2-5 in Beckley.
MSHA requires mine rescue teams to participate in at least two of the events each year.
Alpha maintains 23 teams of volunteer mine rescuers, according to Alpha's mine rescue coordinator, Rob Asbury.
Last year, Alpha's Black Mountain White Team from the Southern Kentucky business unit won the National Mine Rescue Competition, which includes individual events testing knowledge of a breathing apparatus and pre-shift inspection skills and team events in first aid and overall mine rescue.
Then, this week at the Nationwide Mine Rescue Skills Competition in Beckley, Alpha's Kingston White, Rockspring Development Gold and Brooks Run South teams took all three top spots in Division 2, the division for experienced teams. The event tests skills needed to rescue miners trapped underground or injured in smoky and fiery conditions.
The Beckley nationwide win followed a regional event two weeks earlier, where the Southern Kentucky White Team defended its 2011 win at Cove Lake in Tennessee. Other Alpha teams from Kentucky and West Virginia took high spots in that competition as well.
Winning is a function of drilling, and Alpha's teams drill regularly.
"They're required to put in 96 hours per year," Asbury said, "but we probably triple that."
The miners on a given team may work at several different mines, said Biggerstaff, and get together a couple days a month for mine rescue training.
"As we get closer to the contest, they'll gather occasionally in the afternoon and we'll just work a mine rescue problem for extra practice," he said.
"Also, every six months, the teams travel to the mines they cover so they can keep familiar with them and to do some underground training under oxygen," he said.
Why do miners volunteer for such dangerous work?
"I think it's the pride in what you can do for your fellow workers and employees at the mine," Biggerstaff said.
"Mine rescue is something that grows on you," he said. "You want to be the best in the contest, but that's secondary — the primary thing is that you want to be able to respond and help your fellow workers."
Preparing for and competing in contests builds the teamwork and camaraderie that will be critical if an emergency ever occurs, he said.
Asbury emphasized the commitment that the company has to its mine rescue teams.
"Even though it's kind of a down time right now, Alpha really supports its mine rescue teams," he said.
"Mine rescue's not suffered because of the economic times," Biggerstaff agreed. "Alpha's making sure of that."