February 4, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

Two high-tech communication firms, Venture Design Services, Inc and Helicomm, Inc., teamed up to create a wireless tracking system for underground miners, and it is the first product of its kind to be approved by MSHA since the Sago, WV disaster.  That 2006 event, which claimed the lives of 12 coal miners and forever changed the lives of their families, coworkers and community, was the impetus for the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER Act) and its requirements for wireless tracking systems.

Helicomm has been using the CONSOL Energy’s Big Branch mine in Mingo County, WV to test the system.  The Big Branch mine is not an active mine, but since June 2007 has been the demonstration site for the “MineTracer” system.  Helicomm’s Ken Hill says:

“MSHA’s approval of MineTracer represents a quantum leap for safety systems in the coal industry.  It is truly bringing 21st century technology into the mines.”

In MSHA’s news release announcing MineTracer’s approval by the agency’s Approval and Certification Center, Asst. Secretary Richard Stickler said:

“Since the Sago mine disaster, MSHA has received dozens of proposals from manufacturers and distributors of emergency communication and tracking systems.  This approved system provides a wireless means for mine operators to track miners underground both before and after an emergency event.”

The MINER Act, signed into law by President G.W. Bush in June 2006, requires mine operators to have a written emergency preparedness and response plan.  One component of the plan is post-accident tracking of coal miners who are underground at the time of the incident.  The law states: 

“Consistent with commercially available technology and with the physical constraints, if any, of the mine, the plan shall provide for above ground personnel to determine the current, or immediately pre-accident location of all underground personnel.  Any system so utilized shall be functional, reliable, and calculated to remain serviceable in a post-accident setting.”

Kenny Morgan, the maintenance manager at the Big Branch mine who has been working with Helicomm to test the MineTracer system says:

“[the] system works well and with continuous tracking we know the location of everyone underground at all times.”

The companies say:

“the typical system layout provides continous tracking of miners along haulage entries and work areas.  In the event of a mine accident, MineTracer will operate continously on batteries for days after the power has been cut off to the mine.”

Of course, the system isn’t perfect, but what system is?  I can hear skeptics bemoaning that this is only one-way communication and it doesn’t give miners what they really need which is a way to report back on their own physical condition, that of their coworkers, or about obstacles in the mine itself which may impede a rescue. 

Indeed, this is true, but this seems like a giant step in that direction.  If my brother was an underground miner, and there was a debate about whether the mine operator should purchase the MineTracer now, or wait longer for a two-way system with lots of bells and whistles, I know what side of that debate I’d be on.  Give my brother the best you have now, and give him the best you have later.  These underground miners in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Alabama and elsewhere are feeding our insatiable appetite for coal.  They deserve 21st century equipment and technology investment for continous improvements.

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