2014 National Mine Rescue Skills Contest

Nationwide mine rescue meet held at MTTC in Ruff Creek
October 10, 2014

RUFF CREEK – Mine rescue teams are specially trained to respond during a mine emergency.

Their members are the first to go underground following a fire or an explosion to rescue fellow miners or to extinguish a blaze that could jeopardize the mine and the livelihood of hundreds of workers.

“This is probably the most difficult emergency response undertaken in this country,” said Joe Main, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, speaking Thursday at the awards ceremony of the Nationwide Mine Rescue Skills Championship.

Twenty-five teams from across the nation that previously won qualifying events competed in the contest, which was held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Mining Technology and Training Center in Ruff Creek.

“When you think about what other emergency events happen, there are not very many that require the kind of work that our folks have to do,” Main said.  “The dedication that comes with that, from our mine rescue folks, you just can’t measure,” he said.

Team members are trained to work in the hazardous conditions that could exist underground following a disaster.  Entering the mine, they may encounter fire, dense smoke, chest-high water or methane gas that can quickly rise or fall to explosive levels.

The competitions helps the teams sharpen their skills.

“These types of competitions are key,” said John Chambers of Carmichaels, a 36-year member of the Cumberland Mine Rescue Team, which participated in the event.

Chambers, whose team has fought several mine fires, including one at its own mine, said mine rescue can be risky because of the conditions that can be encountered during a mine emergency.

“You have to have faith in your team and your equipment,” he said.  The training and the mine rescue competitions help to instill that confidence in both, he said.

Chambers said he joined the mine rescue team partly because his father, John Chambers Sr., also had been involved in mine rescue.  “If there’s a mine emergency, I want to help,” he said, explaining the other reason for joining.  “I want to help, first to save the life of any brother or sister miner, and second, to protect the workplace … so the miners have a place to work so they can feed their families.”

During the competition, the teams participated in a traditional mine rescue contest in which each team attempts to solve a set of problems and address various mine conditions in a simulated mine disaster.

They also are tested on a number of skills, including smoke exploration, firefighting, first aide, gas detection, air measurement and knowledge of breathing apparatuses.  A written test also is part of the competition.

The training center features a simulated coal mine inside a 40,000-square-foot building as well as a burn tunnel and smoke chamber to give the training and contest a more life-like feel.

Main, a Greene County native, had helped design the center prior to becoming head of MSHA, said Clemmy Allen, executive director of the UMWA Career Center Inc., which runs the facility.

Allen introduced Main, who also spoke of some of the initiatives MSHA has begun to improve mine rescue operations since he became head of the agency in 2009.

The initiatives include developing new criteria for rescue team certification and new guidance on conducting mine rescue operations, establishing a fourth federal mine rescue station and supporting development of new technologies for underground mine communications and mine atmospheric monitoring.

“On behalf of MSHA and the entire mining community we thank you for what you do,” Main told the group.  “This training exercise is a fantastic opportunity for you to prepare yourselves to help us do the job we hope we never have to call on you to do.”

All three winning teams were from Alpha Natural Resources.

First place went to Coal River East, part of the Marfork and Elk Run mining operations in central West Virginia; second place went to the Brooks Run South mining operations near Beckley, W.Va.; and third place to the Maxxim Shared Services mining operations in Virginia.

Mark Williams, a trainer for the Maxxim Shared Services, said members of his team had “put their heart and soul’” in training for the event.  But, he also gave credit to everyone who participated in the competition.

“Everybody in this room, everybody involved in mine rescue, is the best of the best,” Williams said.  “Any miner who will risk his life for another miner is a special person.”