When Mining Disaster Strikes, Rescue Teams At Center Of Emergency Response

By Robin Hartman

The Harlan Orange Team, taken at Harlan during the interagency contest.

Division of Mine Safety Director Tim Fugate remembers responding to the explosion at the Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan in April 2006. 

“I’ll never forget passing a church a few miles from the mine in the early hours of the morning. The parking lot was full of cars and the church lights were on,” said Fugate, who was a member of the agency’s Hazard branch at the time. “You could smell smoke well before arriving at the mine.”   

After arriving, rescue teams mapped the mine, established a plan of action and worked through the night to advance into the mine and search for survivors. The Darby Mine accident was the third major U.S. mining disaster of early 2006, following accidents in Sago, West Virginia and Melville, West Virginia. In each incident — and others throughout the years — mine rescue teams were at the center of emergency response. 

“These are the guys that run in when everyone else is running out,” Fugate said. 

Each underground coal mine is required to have two mine rescue teams within one-hour drive time of the mine. While large mines often maintain their own mine rescue teams on-site, the Division of Mine Safety, within the Energy and Environment Cabinet, currently has 55 mine rescue team members that provide support to 49 underground coal mines and 12 underground rock quarries. 

“Our mine rescue teams are made up of dedicated professionals from within the community,” Fugate said. “Rapid response by well trained and prepared mine rescue teams is critical to the success of a mine rescue mission.” 

Special Training Needed

Coal mining accidents require specialized emergency response, said Lewis Mills, Director of Safety and Emergency Preparedness for Alden Resources, a coal mining and processing company in Corbin, Kentucky.  

Mines are usually out of reach for city or county ambulance services and fire departments, he said, and fighting a house fire is a lot different than extinguishing a mine fire. “Flames in a house fire go straight up, but flames in a mine follow the air current — right at you,” Mills said. 

Continuous education and training can make the difference between life and death for all involved. Underground coal mine rescue team members are required to undergo training according to the requirements set by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s Office of Educational Policy and Development (EPD). 

Following the three mining disasters in early 2006, rescue team members were required to complete 96 hours of annual training, train at each mine and be knowledgeable about the operations and ventilation of the mine they will be covering, and participate in two local mine rescue contests. 

Mine rescue teams are trained in fire-fighting and ventilation methods, and participate in simulated live-fire trainings. They learn to monitor oxygen and CO2 levels, appropriately handle ignition sources, recognize unstable mine environments, and navigate flooded areas within a mine. Members must complete an initial 20-hour course of instruction in the use, care, and maintenance of the type of breathing apparatus that will be used by the team.  

Mine Safety Contests Provide Real-World Scenarios

The contests include simulated mine rescue scenarios. Members are required to plan their approach and make decisions quickly while operating under perceived dangers. Ten prescribed areas of training are completed to assure teams can perform mine rescue duties.  

The Hazard Team, photographed in Hazard during the interagency contest.

Although there are obvious differences between the practice field and actual mine rescues, the competitions allow team members to respond to a wide variety of situations, similar to those they may encounter during an emergency. This year’s contests are being completed in Pikeville, Hazard, Harlan and Madisonville. 

“We don’t want these teams to have any surprises, so we establish scenarios just like they’d encounter in the mine,” said EEC mine rescue coordinator Jeffrey Brock, who trains the teams and organizes the competitions. “They have to know how to handle it.” 

Brock said participants enjoy the competition and want to win, but they also take the contests seriously as a training tool. 

The 2006 disasters also led to safety improvements in the actual mines and new requirements for miners. Top-notch mine rescue teams, safety-conscious mine owners, and better trained miners add up to fewer fatalities in the mines, Mills said. 

“We’ve made mining a lot safer,” he said. “And it’s proven to be much safer than a lot of occupations. It’s been 10 years since a major disaster, and that’s good.” 

The coal industry is facing increased expenses, competition from both the natural gas industry, and renewable energy sources, and rising concerns about environmental impacts. 

And with the cost to set up and maintain a rescue team sometimes exceeding $600,000, the Cabinet’s mine rescue teams play an increasingly vital role for the miners working in Kentucky’s 200 or so active mines. 

 “It means a lot to be on a team,” Brock said. “We take it serious. Saving a coal miner is a big deal to us.”  

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