Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rescue Teams and Rescue Managers

MSHA has done well in putting on its website answers to frequently asked questions about the Sago rescue effort. It would have been better if the agency had been more proactive earlier, but this is a move in the right direction.

The agency says some 13 specially trained rescue teams responded to the explosion. Mine rescue people have always stepped forward to help in this way. They are to be commended for their courage, their commitment to others and the many hours that every team member spends practicing to be ready for such a situation. Their dedication reflects a special quality shared by men and women who work in the nation's mines. Anyone who gets to know miners quickly discovers this. They deserve our respect and admiration.

Questions about the rescue process will take time to sort out. One question is how quickly officials got off the mark. MSHA says that the explosion happened at about 6:30 a.m. The company reportedly first put in a call to MSHA about 8:10 a.m. and made contact at 8:30. In other words, by MSHA's account, 100 minutes passed before the company tried to contact MSHA.

MSHA's rules state:

30 CFR ยง 50.10
Immediate notification.

If an accident occurs, an operator shall immediately contact the MSHA District Office having jurisdiction over its mine....

The investigators will be looking at all of this, certainly.

When I was with MSHA, I observed the response of both MSHA and company officials to extremely serious mine accidents. I also participated in emergency training exercises for managers.

It was clear that in a bad emergency (any emergency, not just in mining), human reactions can be slowed by shock, a sense that "this can't be happening," and the hope that it won't be as serious as feared. In some historic cases, critical moments went by in evaluating a situation when it would have been better to evacuate at once.

In addition, mine rescue teams do their work underground only under orders from the surface.

That's why it's so critical to plan and practice at the management level as well as the rescue-team level.

MSHA used to give training sessions on emergency response for managers -- its own and company officials -- at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy. The course was known as "Mine Emergency Responsiveness Development." Managers would work through an imaginary emergency rescue scenario in real time. (Including how to meet the needs of families and deal with the media.) I don't happen to see this course on the Academy's class schedule for the coming year, though.

Another group of people who I think need training and drills are those who may have to make the first decisions or give important help at the surface. Sometimes they have to react in the absence of top managers, who may not always be present on site. They can include specialists who monitor electronic warning systems, office workers, and security guards.


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