Indiana, PA - Indiana County

New facility near Home trains miners in safety, rescue techniques

by LAUREN DALEY, ldaley@indianagazette.net on August 07, 2009 12:00 AM

HOME - The captain of the mine rescue team examined the gear of his four men, quickly repeating the same phrase.

(Originally published Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009)

“Checkin' the straps. Checkin' the hoses. Checkin' the sentinel. How you feeling?” said Ed Young, rescue team captain, his words almost blurring together.

After straps were adjusted and each man responded with an “I feel good!” a team member checked Young's equipment. Then, attached to one another by a cable lifeline, map man Dale Millar, front gas man John Breaks, stretcher man Jeff Gabster and tail captain Mike Groff entered an above-ground course made of poles and ropes that represented cross-cuts, coal pillars and entries of an underground coal mine.

The crew navigated the simulated mine, checking the roof, monitoring for methane gas and marking the time, date and initials at each place they stopped.

While everything checked out in this impromptu simulation for visitors, they could face during an actual disaster a damaged roof, high levels of gasses in the air or an injured person.

As they explore the mine, the captain calls out his findings to a crew member who maps it, then relays it to an outside briefing officer. In an actual disaster, emergency officials use that information to make decisions.

The simulation was a small example of the extensive training that mine rescue crews must complete. It was set up at the Marion Center Mine Rescue and Training Facility on Route 119 in Rayne Township. There members of the Department of Environmental Protection mine rescue teams come for training from area mines to learn everything from mastering basic rescue techniques and firefighting to timbering a bad roof and ventilating an area.

The facility has been in operation since December and was formally dedicated Wednesday by local officials and representatives from the DEP who operate the facility.

The center is a requirement of federal laws enacted after recent mine disasters, particularly the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 in West Virginia, set a requirement for rescue teams to be located within a one-hour response to all underground mines. Under previous laws, the response time was two hours.

“In a mine disaster, literally every minute frankly matters. When you can respond in no more than an hour … you're maximizing the chance of saving lives and reducing injury in the event of a mine accident,” John Hanger, DEP secretary, said at the dedication. “There is nothing more precious once a disaster occurs than time.”

Though Hanger and other officials said they hope the area never has to activate its mine rescue team, they believe the new facility will provide the opportunity for adequate training that can help save lives.

“There are real important reasons why we need to cut the response time to one hour. Federal law requires it but federal law understands that quick response time is vital to saving lives and getting folks who are perhaps injured to a facility where they can be taken care of,” he said. “I say this humbly and with a little bit of pride that Pennsylvania's mines are the safest in the world. This makes them still safer. We all know that mining is a dangerous occupation and it requires attention to detail every single minute and frankly requires preparation because there are going to be those accidents that require a response.”

Sen. Don White, R-Indiana; Indiana County Commissioner Rodney Ruddock; members of the coal mine rescue team; and other mining and DEP officials were on hand to dedicate the building.

“The legacy of this region, particularly Indiana County, where we are today, is about coal. It's difficult to find any family in this region and in this district that hasn't been touched by the coal industry,” White said. “As the secretary mentioned, it's an inherently dangerous business. But we can be proud of our safety record in the United States and I think this latest federal move also headed toward mine safety in the state is a step in the right direction. … This is going to save lives. That's the bottom line. That's the most important thing.”

Jim Pablic, director of safety for Amfire Mining, said that state-operated rescue programs allow coal mine operators to stay in business. Otherwise, he said, it would be cost prohibitive.

“It just gives you the knowledge and feeling that you do have somebody here if you need them. Let's hope we never do. But there's always the possibility that something could go wrong,” Pablic said. “Everybody thinks coal mining is dangerous. It's not a dangerous occupation, but there are hazards and workers have to be aware of those hazards. They can't ignore them. They have to weigh the risk of different jobs and when people don't do it properly, that's when you have accidents.”

The Marion Center Mine Rescue and Training Facility will train four rescue teams to provide coverage to 15 underground coal mines in Armstrong, Beaver, Clarion, Clearfield, Indiana and Jefferson counties for Amfire Mining, TJS Mining, Rosebud Mining and Parkwood Resources. DEP officials said the new center brings the state into compliance with federal laws for mine rescue coverage. Rescue stations are also operated in Ebensburg, Cambria County; Tremont, Schuylkill County; and Uniontown, Fayette County.

The stations also cover underground non-coal mines in the state, according to the DEP.

“This station is very modern and up to date. It has the best equipment available today, upgraded breathing apparatus, the truck will be upgraded. We're doing everything we can to put the best equipment, the best facility and, in turn, the best training together,” said Joseph Sbaffoni, DEP bureau director.

The facility is more than 5,000 square feet with the outdoor simulated coal mine course, conference room, offices and garage that houses a fully contained truck with communications, rescue equipment and 26 breathing apparatus. Two Emergency Response Training Specialists - Frank Petro and Ray Letizia - work out of the facility training the mine rescue team, the county's Special Medical Response Team and conducting other mine safety courses.

To be on the mine rescue team requires eight hours of training at the facility a month, a total of at least 96 per year, in addition to participating in at least two state competitions and visiting each mine in their coverage area, Letizia said.

“You train them how to explore the mine. You set up the scenario and train them how to systemically explore the mine,” he said.

The DEP provides training, equipment and the facility to the state's small mine operators who must provide at least two volunteer members to serve on the team.

“Without everybody's cooperation and participation, we could not have a program,” Sbaffoni said. “Without a program, we couldn't comply with federal requirements.”

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