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Mine Rescue Teams Have New Role After September 11 - 2002-04-08

Rescue teams in West Virginia are quite familiar with what it takes to do their jobs when disaster strikes a coal mine. They've been preparing for years to deal with such underground emergencies. And now, they're training to bring their expertise to homeland security.

The West Virginia Mine Rescue Team is used to working in the chilly confined spaces of a coal mine with little more than a headlamp to show them the way through the pitch black. But this situation is different: it looks like an underground parking garage, crushed beneath a collapsed 22-story building. The members of the team make their way through tight spaces and around heavy slabs of concrete, damaged cars and other debris. They are looking for survivors of the disaster. But even though those survivors are nothing more than 85-kilogram mannequins, and this disaster is only a training exercise staged in an old highway tunnel, the team members are quite serious about their jobs.

Their expertise has taken on new importance in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As the former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Davitt McAteer is familiar with that command system. He is now a consultant with the International Union of Operating Engineers, which has been training World Trade Center clean-up crews to deal with hazardous materials and to be mindful of dangerous respiratory conditions. "What we learned at the WTC," he said, "is that we don't have in this country a scheme for recovering sites where there has been a disaster, with a command system like exists in the mines."

This exercise is part of a pilot project to enhance the expertise mine rescuers possess so they can help in other types of disasters.

"We are trying to learn the lessons from the command system that we know from mine rescues and apply that to WTC type settings. Also, we are looking at the WTC experience and say, 'what are the lessons that we gain from there?' First of all, the size, the chaos, the number of people that were there," he explained. "And then, thirdly, we are trying to cross-train the mine rescue team - it's an enhanced mine rescue team - and train them in the area of biological, chemical and weapons of mass destruction. So, it's bringing these three elements together to try to enhance our own capabilities in mine rescue, but also improve the capabilities for rescue at disaster sites at non-mine settings."

Members of mine rescue teams already know how to safely enter a mine after an explosion or cave-in and how to protect themselves and others against poisonous gases, skills that can be easily adapted to other types of disastrous situations. But Mike Rutledge, a Safety Instructor with the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said the addition of hazardous material, in this case a coolant leak, made the simulated disaster more complicated.

"If this scenario was strictly a mining area, I think we would have been able to complete it a little bit quicker or a little bit faster. But because of the hazardous chemical that's involved, then it becomes much more difficult," he said. "You have to take much more precautions with the level B protective clothing that increases the fatigue factor of the individual because of the heat that's generated. Basically, they are inside a rubber suit, which makes every little movement that much more difficult. So, because we've introduced the hazardous chemical, it just compounds it and shows us that it's going to be a little bit more difficult than something we might be used to."

Learning to deal with hazardous materials is an important addition to the teams' training, according to Bruce Lippy of the Operating Engineers National Hazardous Materials program, which oversees worker safety at Ground Zero.

"I watched urban search and rescue teams like these folks go underground at the WTC," said Mr. Lippy. "There are a number of floors underground and there were freon tanks, which are part of this scenario, there were large freon tanks, the largest in the country, that they were concerned were leaking, so they sent teams to go check them out. So this is a great experience for these folks. In any of the disasters we've experienced from terrorism, you have, unfortunately, lots of situations where it's going to be confined, very tight to work in. And these people are the absolute pros as far as working in tight areas. The other thing, they have skills such as shoring up and buttressing tunnels and so forth that may have collapsed that a lot of teams don't so that's a pretty remarkable and important skill in all of this."

This exercise was the culmination of nearly a week's worth of instruction, training that safety experts hope will be incorporated into the regimen of other mine rescue teams and emergency responders around the country.