By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
A group of students at West Virginia University is going beyond the classroom to focus on the importance of mine rescue teams.
While different people had been talking about creating a mine rescue team at WVU for a while, the idea finally came to fruition when Travis Hartsog — a mining engineering student at the time — took the lead on the effort.
“I just wanted to give mining engineering students something to have fun with,” he said. “It’s hands-on. It’s great experience.”
Hartsog said his goal was to give students the opportunity to gain knowledge of mine rescue, which also looks great on resumes, and make connections with the mining industry.
He spent two years going through all the steps to create the student-run organization, and the WVU Mine Rescue Team was officially recognized by the university in January 2012.
When Hartsog initially asked for signups, eight or 10 students expressed interest, but a couple dropped out after the group met. As word of the newly created team spread, more and more students joined.
After the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, student Tyler Jackson started thinking about how to make mining safer. When he learned that Hartsog was starting a mine rescue team, he wanted to get involved so he could do his part.
Student officers handle the management of the organization, and Jackson, a senior mining engineering major from St. Albans, was elected the new president in spring of 2013.
Hartsog, who is originally from Beckley, graduated from WVU in 2012 and works for Patriot Coal’s Speed Mining LLC in Cabin Creek. He lives in Charleston and continues to work with the team as much as he can.
Jackson said the organization currently has 12 active members, who make up two mine rescue teams of six people. The gold team is comprised of mostly seniors, who are more experienced, and the blue team consists of mainly lower classmen, who are newer to the subject.
The group also has a handful of auxiliary members who want to learn the basic principals of mine rescue and help out during simulated situations, such as playing the role of a miner who needs rescued, he said. Everyone who is on the team is a declared mining engineering major at WVU.
Jackson stressed that regardless of students’ physical abilities, a spot can be found for them on the team. However, this organization isn’t a fit for all students.
“It’s open to everyone, but it’s not for everyone,” he said. “It’s a very time-involved project, and at the same time it’s also very rigorous.”
The team goes through exploration training under Mike Reese, a certified mine rescue trainer, at the Mining Technology and Training Center (MTTC) in Ruff Creek, Pa. They also go to the Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies at Dolls Run, which the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources’ Department of Mining and Industrial Extension operates.
Jackson explained that the students learn how a mine rescue team operates during a disaster, and the exploration techniques for trying to find missing persons and dealing with the dangerous conditions inside mines.
He said they typically train at MTTC two days a month and also review the different rules and concepts of the mine rescue process during weekly, in-classroom training at WVU. This spring, EMT-quality first aid will be incorporated into the team.
The team prepares for the Pennsylvania Regional Mine Rescue Skills Contest, held at MTTC in April, and was ranked eighth out of 15 teams this year. The group also helped out with the National Mine Rescue Association Post 5 Contest in August at Mylan Park in Morgantown.
Hartsog added that the organization competes against collegiate teams as well as industry teams, some of which have been doing mine rescue for many years. He said the WVU Mine Rescue Team learns a lot from those experienced teams.
The organization is supported entirely through fundraisers and private contributions. Equipment has also been donated to the team so the members can practice.
Mark Sindelar, research assistant professor in mining engineering at WVU, serves as the faculty advisor of the WVU Mine Rescue Team. He teaches a mine power systems course at the university. Sindelar said he jumped at the chance to be a part of this student-run organization.
He stressed that the team isn’t just about competitions, because mine rescue is real life.
“We have fun with it, but the students understand there is a serious side to it,” Sindelar said.
A well-trained mine rescue team can make the difference between life and death, and the organization brings in speakers to talk about the not-so-pleasant aspects of mine rescue, he said. The members interact with people who are involved in the mine safety rescue side of the mining community across the local area and country.
By law, the WVU Mine Rescue Team is not allowed to actually perform a rescue underground in the event of an emergency. However, the team can assist at the site by cleaning and calibrating equipment, managing the breathing apparatuses, and providing other support as needed, Sindelar said.
“We try to be part of the community,” he said.
Some of the students may end up on mine rescue teams in their future careers. Others could serve in management positions, and they will understand the importance of putting time and resources into a mine rescue team, Sindelar said.
He said he’s very proud of the students, who are very professional, committed, and involved in the team for the right reasons. During trainings, all the members share ideas, work well together and support each other.
“We say we leave the egos at the door,” Sindelar said. “It’s about as close to industry that you’re going to get in the collegiate setting.”
Email Jessica Borders at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.