WEST FINLEY – Joe Main decided in February 2010 the Mine Safety and Health Administration should make it a priority to “close the gaps” in communication problems that inevitably transpired during mine emergencies and rescues.
Less than two months after MSHA’s assistant secretary for mine safety began pushing the initiative, 29 miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.
Even improved communications for rescuers wouldn’t have changed the tragic outcome of that disaster, Main said, but it might have eased the agonizing delay as search teams worked for days to locate and recover the deceased.
More than five years after the initiative was announced, crews working at Consol Energy’s Harvey Mine that burrows beneath Washington and Greene counties tested a revolutionary new communications system that allows people underground to speak directly with the command post, relay videos and coordinate rescue plans.
Previously, crews used hard-line telephone systems at the front of the mine and relay information using radios from rescuers positioned about 500 feet apart. John Urosek, MSHA’s chief of mine safety, said that would often lead to miscommunication about the situation, leading to more delays in an already dangerous situation.
“You can imagine the miscommunication that can happen, along with the delays,” Urosek said. “We can react to the people are trapped easier. Now it’s in real time.”
The new system owned by the federal government includes fiber optic cables, radios that can also transmit live gas readings and other equipment that can be transported and deployed for an emergency at any mine in this region. This first system, which Urosek described as “pretty expensive,” will be stationed in the Pittsburgh area, with others soon to be stationed in West Virginia, Kentucky, Utah and Colorado. The federal government worked closely with Consol to develop the system built by Innovative Wireless Technologies of Lynchburg, Va.
“The pluses it brings to us are well worth every penny,” Urosek said. “Someone had to start this, and eventually, it will be a standard piece of equipment in every mine. But this is the kickstart, which is why we’re so excited about it.”
During Wednesday’s training exercise, eight rescue crews from Consol, along with federal and state workers, began testing the system using a variety of scenarios. In the command post, company and government officials spoke directly to teams underground and at the surface as rescuers searched and tended to a man with a fictitious leg injury.
Live video and real-time gas readings streamed back to the post on large televisions as rescuers worked on the miner and fitted him with an oxygen mask.
However, the voices of the miners were garbled or muffled as they spoke on the radios through their masks, making it difficult to understand them at times. That was exactly the point of the test run, Main said, as they now plan to find ways to improve the voice recorders or install them into the masks.
“It’s not a perfect science, but it works out the bugs,” Main said.
Lou Barletta, Consol’s vice president of safety, said it was important for the Southpointe-based mining company to work closely with the system’s innovators to explain problems and how it can be improved. Barletta said they tried to make the four-day training exercise “as real as it can be” for both Consol miners and federal regulators.
“The more efficiently we can be with communicating the more effective we can be in mine rescues,” Barletta said. “It’s a great day for mine technology.”
For Main, a Waynesburg native, working back in Greene County on a project he helped push is fulfilling. However, he hopes the technology ultimately helps to accelerate rescue procedures and saves lives.
“What you’re seeing here is a dream,” Main said.