Ahead, high-tech help for mine rescues

Could new high-technology devices, some on the drawing board, others not yet approved for use in coal mines, have saved the 12 miners who died in the Sago coal mine last week?

Christopher Papile thinks so. The director of strategic business for NexTech Materials of Columbus, Ohio, says the company's fuel-cell technology could easily have been adapted to deliver three or more days of breathable air to the Sago miners, who died after their air supply ran out.

"The technology we've proven would have kept 12 miners alive underground for 72 hours without a problem," says Dr. Papile, who envisions a device stationed in mine safe rooms. "If we already had this product ready we could have saved those guys."

Today all miners carry a "self- contained, self-rescue" or SCSR device on their belts - the same basic technology used for three decades. Breathing into a chamber activates a chemical reaction that creates oxygen for about an hour. But in meetings last month, sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), investigators said output of such devices could be doubled or tripled.

"What we've found is very encouraging," says Michelle Dougherty, director of technology transfer at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. "Some cross-over technology may help us move to a next generation of self-breather that works something like a fuel cell and lasts for hours."

Despite society's technological advances, few new major emergency or rescue technologies have been deployed widely in coal mines in recent years, some experts say.

That's not to say advanced technologies are unavailable. Several have been developed from new generation mine-rescue robots, to illuminated rescue "lifelines" that emergency responders could use in smoky passageways, to laser pointers that can help see through dust.

Many of these though have not been approved for use in coal mines. Others, like the Personal Emergency Device wireless early-warning system, have been approved, but have not been mandated or widely deployed.

"We have seen advances in mine-rescue tech commensurate with other advances in engineering and technology in general," says Charles Lazzara, project leader for research in Mine Rescue and Response at the Pittsburgh Research Laboratory under NIOSH.

But he acknowledges it is hard to point to major advances in rescue or safety technology that have been widely adopted in mines. "It's been a slow, incremental increase," he says. "Nothing really stands out dramatically. You've had all these small improvements in breathing apparatus, communication systems and robots."

Some technologies that might save lives are developed, but just haven't been licensed by companies. Others have not been approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Take, for instance, thermal imaging cameras that can help rescuers see in the dark. Tests by NIOSH found the device helpful in finding injured miners and seeing through dust and darkness. MSHA has not approved the device for use in emergency situations where gas exists.

Similarly, a lighted team lifeline - a colored, flexible light wire that passes through translucent plastic rope - for emergency responders to use in low light and smoky passages has not been approved. Neither have laser pointers to help miners navigate through smoke and dust.

MSHA officials say the approval process is exacting, due to the combustible atmosphere often found in mines. "If we see a device that can help safety, we'll put it to the front of the line so fast your head will spin," says Mark Skiles, director of technical support for MSHA. "Sometimes the device ... seems like the best thing since sliced bread. But if it's going to blow the mine up, we can't approve it.... Then we'll work with a company to make it permissible."

Some systems have been approved but haven't been widely deployed. Directional lifelines, for instance, ropes with symbols attached to the line that tell miners they're headed in the right direction, have been approved by MSHA. Some states have mandated their use, NIOSH researchers say. But federal regulations do not require them.

Then there's the Personal Emergency Device that can instantly and wirelessly receive an emergency message broadcast to each miner on an LCD screen. The system can save minutes, confusion, and lives and is MSHA-approved. It proved its worth in November 1998, when 45 miners using the system got out safely in 45 minutes during a fire at the Willow Creek Mine in Helper, Utah. Yet only about 17 coal mines have such PED systems, federal officials say. The system is not mandated.

Some industry officials have acknowledged that "in communications technology, at least, the industry is not where it should be," says Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association in Washington. Still, he notes, industry safety efforts have cut fatalities and injuries in the past five years.

One area of technological gain has occurred with rescue robots that can enter mine environments without risking rescuers. The robot at Sago got bogged in mud, but future robotic technology will deal with mud, too. One new vehicle looks like a small all-terrain vehicle with four larger knobby tires.

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