Total blackness. Ally McFarland lifts her hand a few inches from her face mask just to see it, but her hand isn’t there. A line clipped from her belt connects her to two teammates, and together they feel their way through darkness and thick smoke to locate items—potential safety hazards—and then shout their discoveries by radio to their teammates who keep track of their progress.
This is the view that ten Virginia Tech mining and minerals engineering students had at the 2019 Eastern Collegiate Mine Rescue Competition when they faced off against West Virginia University, Penn State, and the University of Kentucky at the Dolls Run Mine Training Center in West Virginia held in October. This year’s competition consisted of two judged events. The longer, more complex, “Mine Rescue” test, and the shorter “Smoke” test.
Students from Team Orange (seniors) and Team Maroon (juniors), along with faculty advisor Ellen Gilliland, returned to Blacksburg with three 2nd place wins in Overall, Mine Rescue, and Smoke for the senior team, and a 3rd place win in the Smoke test for juniors.
Team Orange was made up of seniors Alex Norris, Abdul Boubacar, Alex Pfreundschuh, Chris Osterhout , and Avery Martin. Juniors Ally McFarland, Davy Kelley, Baxter Jones, Nathan Youmans, as well as Class of 2019 Rob Yates, were the members of Team Maroon.
The Mine Rescue test is the main event and simulates an underground mine disaster scenario in which personnel are trapped, missing or injured. Each rescue team has 70 minutes to move through the simulated room and pillar mine as it identifies hazards and obstacles, adheres to strict rules for safe movement, and ultimately locates and recovers any surviving personnel.
“Our team doesn’t know where these individuals are located,” explains Alex Norris, captain for Team Orange. “It’s our job to navigate the course safely, avoid or mitigate potential hazards such as fires, but still locate and help any injured personnel.”
A big challenge in the Mine Rescue test is knowing numerous safety rules which govern the teams’ movements and actions. A judge follows each team, deducting points for anything deemed unsafe or hazardous.
“We have to be aware of every single condition and hazardous situation that might prevent the team from advancing.”
According to Ally McFarland, captain for the junior Team Maroon, “we have to be aware of every single condition and hazardous situation that might prevent the team from advancing.” Teams may encounter scenarios or props for which they immediately must determine a course of action. “If we’re told there’s an explosive mixture in the air and notice a battery nearby, the team needs to leave the area and find alternate routes.” Not knowing rules such as these leads to judges deducting points each time it’s not followed. “If we don’t see the battery, or don’t know that rule, we have points deducted each time we pass through that area,” adds Norris.
The shorter “Smoke” test took place in a small smoke-filled trailer where three members of each team entered with two remaining outside. The goal was to safely navigate through the area while identifying as many objects as possible and report them via radio to the outside team members.
“The smoke is so thick you can’t see your hand more than 6 inches from your face,” recalls McFarland. The three members of Team Orange had to feel their way through a no-to-zero visibility environment while tethered to each other with a line. “We had to break up the course into zones--one member members felt for high objects, another for middle, and the third feel for ground objects,” Norris says.
“It's definitely stressful, and it’s important to manage stress and fatigue. Being able to keep yourself calm and not make rash decisions, while trying to maintain an even pace, is a big challenge.”
The intention of the competition is to recreate the challenges encountered in a real-world situation. “We are all wearing face masks and heavy breathing apparatus;” says McFarland, “not only is visibility hindered, but communication with other teammates is difficult, and we often have to shout out warnings or instructions.”
It’s not uncommon for outside teammates to record incorrect information on their maps, which is something they are judged for. “We lost a number of points due to miscommunication between our radio operator and our outside map man.”
The timed nature of the event adds another level of difficulty. “It's definitely stressful,” admits Norris, “and it’s important to manage stress and fatigue. Being able to keep yourself calm and not make rash decisions, while trying to maintain an even pace, is a big challenge.”
Both teams stopped the clock with less than a minute to spare, noted McFarland, who remembers sprinting through the final minutes of the test.
Members attribute this year’s success to extensive training, which they carried out every Friday throughout the semester at Virginia Tech’s Duck Pond. The teams also received guidance and instruction from Chris Whitt of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy who brought a team of 1-5 trainers each week to work with students. “Chris has done a lot, and I think our team is in a better position for the future,” says Norris.
Despite excellent trainers, the two team captains find there are some logistical hindrances to their training. Because of costs in re-charging the specialized breathing apparatus, “We only were able to train with it one time before the competition,” explains McFarland. “Some aspects of the competition felt completely new just because we were wearing the fully functional breathing apparatus.”
A dedicated space to train also could help the team down the road. “It makes a big difference how big of an area you can keep and train on to prepare for the actual competition,” adds Norris. Currently, the VT teams have to set-up and breakdown a training area consisting of spray-painted lines on a lawn. “The WVU and UK teams have established training facilities and you can see how that level of support really aids them in executing the test.”