Under just about any circumstances, fighting fires and treating and moving accident victims can be difficult, dangerous work. But imagine working in a cramped, pitch-black space hundreds of feet underground. Imagine working as the air fills with poisonous or even explosive gases. Imagine working while watching to see if the walls around you and the ceiling above you are starting to crumble.
In short, imagine what it’s like to be part of a mine rescue team.
Well, several local men don’t have to imagine. They are members of the Carmeuse National Chemicals mine rescue teams based in Chatsworth.
“They are all volunteers who do this in addition to their regular work,” said David P. Tant, site operations manager and team captain. “Some of our guys drive a big dump truck. That’s their day-to-day job. Some of them work with explosives. Some of them run a drill. They all have different jobs. “
The teams draw from Carmeuse’s facilities in Cisco, Chatsworth and Ellijay and practice in Ellijay, and they require volunteers to spend a great deal of their free time preparing for the worst.
“Being on a team requires a whole different set of skills. They have to know about different types of mines. They have to know all the different gases they might encounter. Not just in mines they cover. We could be called in for backup in other mines so they have to know it all,” Tant said.
Federal law requires each mine to have at least two teams stationed no more than two hours from the mine. Each team must have at least six members and can have up to eight plus a trainer.
Team members must have at least two years experience working in mines and pass a physical. They then must undergo at least 20 hours of initial training, including basic first aid and learning how to use the breathing apparatuses and other equipment they’ll use. But that training never ends.
“We put in eight to 12 hours a month. That’s just the training. They do a lot of work, a lot of studying, on their own to prepare,” Tant said. “But when we are preparing for a competition, we’ll train eight hours a week, and the final week before a contest we’ll put in 40 hours, eight hours a day, to get ready.”
So who gets involved in a mine rescue team?
“It’s like being a firefighter,” said Tant, who is himself a volunteer firefighter. “It takes a different personality, somebody who wants to help others and isn’t afraid of danger.
So far the Carmeuse teams haven’t been called out for an actual rescue.
“We did have an underground fire in Ellijay in 2010, and we went out to extinguish that, assess the stability of the mine and the gases and get the mine back into operation. A lot of times, a mine rescue team’s work isn’t about rescuing but about making sure a mine is safe and getting it back into operation,” Tant said.
To keep sharp, mine rescue teams engage in plenty of practice and take part in as many competitions as they can.
“About four years ago we started entering competitions. It gives the men an incentive to take part in the team, a chance to travel and test their skills against other teams,” said W. Mark Davis, a Carmeuse area operations manager and a veteran of mine rescue.
“The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) sets up these trials, mock disasters. It could be an explosion underground, a fire, a flood. There are people trapped and injured, and the team goes in to rescue them. There will be a first aid section, tending to the injured. There will be an equipment section, showing they can operate their equipment,” Davis said.
“There’s a regional contest every year. There’s a national contest for coal every other year, and a national for metal/nonmetal mines every other year. They alternate,” he said.
One of the Carmeuse teams finished fourth at a regional contest last month in Maysville, Ky.
“It was a really close contest, just 12 points separated first place from fourth,” Tant said. “There’s generally 12 to 15 teams there, and they come in from all over, not just the Southeast. They come from Utah, from Kansas, New Mexico, from Montana. That’s because they use the one in Kentucky as preparation for the nationals.”
The Carmeuse team will head to the national competition this weekend in Reno, Nev., and compete against almost three dozen other teams from across the nation.
This week they’ve been ramping up their already intense practices, including running some scenarios similar to the ones they’ll see in Reno under the watchful eye of an official from the MSHA.
In addition to helping keep mines safe, maintaining a rescue team has other benefits for the company, Tant said.
“It develops leaders. It builds teamwork, and they have to study and learn about so much beyond their regular jobs,” he said. “When it comes time to look for supervisors, those people tend to have more knowledge, and they’ve shown they can work together. It’s a good base for leadership.”