JULIA ROBERTS GOAD
PIKEVILLE, Ky. — “Training for something you hope never happens.”
That is what hundreds of coal mine rescue mine team members do, but what one team member called “the fun part” took place recently.
Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance (KEMI) held their annual Mine Rescue Competition in Pikeville, a three day competition that pitted 46 six-member teams from seven states, Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alabama, against each other.
Ryan Worthen, Communications Manager for KEMI, said there were fewer competitors this year, a reflection of recent layoffs in the coal industry. Although the competition costs nothing to enter, some team members had to use vacation time and pay the costs of attending the event.
“That is how dedicated these men are,” Worthen told the Daily News. “They are here learning life saving lessons.”
He explained how the competition works.
Competition is held in three areas: pre-shift, bench and mine rescue.
A foreman enters a mine before each shift, a pre-shift inspection, to check for and correct any hazards that may be present before the miners enter the mine. Pre-shift competition gives the teams a scenario they would encounter during a pre-shift inspection, and rates their competence on correcting any issues they find.
Bench competition is focused on apparatus and equipment. The equipment has a “bug,” a problem, and the miners must ensure the equipment is working properly.
But the biggest competition is mine rescue.
The fields at Bob Amos Park are cordoned off into 11 areas, where mine rescue teams face scenarios of mining disasters, fires and explosions. The teams work and communicate together to solve the problems in the shortest time possible with the fewest mistakes, without endangering the team.
Placards are placed within the areas, with specific details of the particular situation each team faces, such as a roof collapse, a flooded area or a place where endangered men have barricaded themselves in a safe area. Information is provided that, in an actual disaster situation, would be gathered with monitors, such as oxygen, methane and carbon dioxide levels. Team members also portray miners who are injured or in a dangerous situation.
Each team is connected by a rope, to ensure no one is left alone. A team member is set up behind a curtain, receiving and relaying information via radio, coordinating the rescue efforts.
Judges are state and federal officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Office of Surface Mining.
Worthen said advances in communication have affected mine rescue.
“When we started five years ago, teams were dragging cables for their radios,” he said. “Now, have wireless communications. Wireless in a coal mine is not easy to accomplish. It has had a huge impact on the competition.”
Freddie Lewis is a Safety Technician at Mountain Laurel Coal. He has been competing for 18 years, the last five as a trainer, and has had two teams finish first place at other national competitions.
“On my job I am an ambassador for safety,” Lewis said. “This absolutely helps. We enhance and develop our skills, in the case of a disaster, we are ready. It also builds camaraderie, so that if we do have to go to a mine, we are not among strangers.”
But, he said the miners are very competitive.
“This is a very strong competition,” Lewis said. “We all want to win, want to stand above the rest.”
Phillip Muncy, a section foreman and team captain from the Panther Mine of Black Mountain, an Alpha subsidiary, agreed.
“A mine safety team trains for something we hope never happens. But this is the fun part,” Muncy said. “We are a tight knit group.”
Muncy said he has been a rescue team member since he went into the mines eight years ago. His team has won national competitions, what Ryan Worthen called the Superbowl and World Series of mine rescue, calling them the “best of the best.”
Muncy, however proud he is of his team, falls short of claiming any glory for himself.
“We take what we learn here back to work,” Muncy said. “It really helps with the safety aspect of working in the mines. I knew we are ready, I would, and I do, trust my teammates with my life.”
Freddie Lewis is the Executive Director for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. He said the competition KEMI provides invaluable training.
“This gives experience, a chance to hone their skills,” he said. “If he do have a disaster, they are ready and trained up to answer the call for miners. A team member is unselfish, they are ready at any time to leave their family, don their apparatus and sacrifice all to help someone they don’t even know.”
He thanked KEMI for all they do for the mining industry as well as honoring those working underground.
“If the industry ever needed a boost, it’s now,” Lewis said. “I want to thank KEMI on behalf of my agency and the state of Kentucky, I can’t say enough about them. They provide coverage, that makes jobs possible for the state, and that puts Christmas presents under the tree.”
A list of winners will be published as it becomes available.