HARRISBURG — Southeastern Illinois College and coal mine training partner Illinois Eastern Community Colleges opened their long-awaited Simulated Mine Training Facility Wednesday, May 31, at SIC’s Harrisburg campus.
The occasion was marked by a short ceremony, a ribbon cutting, and a tour of the facility. SIC President Jonah Rice opened the ceremonies by noting that the most important thing to come out of a coal mine is a miner. “That’s all we are trying to do is to make sure they all go in and they all come out. SIC and IECC take that safety training seriously, and have for many, many years.”
Rice said the facility’s state-of-the-art technology will provide “new levels of training for this noble profession and major economic force in our region.”
He said the new facility will greatly compliment the exceptional work the colleges do for the coal mining industry through training in their burn tunnel, outdoor classrooms, and other fire science training areas.
IECC CEO Terry Bruce agreed that that mine safety is very important in the region, and that many don’t realize that the burn tunnel is “one of very few in the nation,” which, in combination with the new building will expand the ability of the facility to provide for the safety of its workers.
Bruce also cited Mike Thomas as the man who catalyzed the operation. Thomas is the Dean of Workforce Education at IECC and was a miner for 31 years.
“This was my dream before Rend Lake College even got theirs built,” he said. “We even had the plans drawn up but we could not get the funding. And then, when we did get the funding, it took several years before the state would release the money.”
Thomas said the project required a lot of vision, and that usually it is difficult to get community colleges to work together, but that Rice and Bruce made it happen, and they continue to foster partnerships, with John A. Logan College, for example, to help support the region’s miners.
“I worked underground for 31 years. I was a maintenance supervisor for Old Ben Coal, and I worked for Zeigler Coal," Thomas said. "And even though people say the mines are being phased out and there are fewer and fewer miners, that doesn’t matter. If there is one mine left, the miners deserve to be protected."
And according to Thomas, this facility provides the type of training that they need in order to learn how to respond in a real-life situation should something happen. Thomas also envisions the facility as a comprehensive training platform for municipalities in the region.
“Because of its flexibility, the facility can accommodate firefighters learning how to respond in a burning building, or police departments who need to practice response to a live shooter situation,” Thomas said.
The tour through the new facility was led by Bill Patterson, inspector-at-large for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Office of Mines and Minerals, and began in relative clarity.
A crowd of about 30 people entered the large, barn-like building and followed Patterson down a corridor lit with overhead fluorescent lights. Somewhere behind Patterson, a low cloud of smoke hovered a few feet off the ground, as he explained how a rescue situation would be reproduced.
By the time he finished explaining how a team leader would use a map of a simulated mine to locate, and account for, a group of miners to safely bring them to “the surface” smoke filled the building and visibility had dropped to about two feet.
Patterson, invisible behind a curtain of smoke, spoke about the dangers found in underground mining situation. “Smoke does not behave the same way underground as it does above. It does not blow away, it just hangs.”
After the tour group exited the building, Mark Baue, Safety Specialist at Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa, echoed Patterson’s assessment of the smoke. “Since there is no ventilation it just lays on you.”
Baue said he was in the new building a month ago and even with no smoke, when the lights were out it was pitch black. Add the smoke, he said, and an apt metaphor would be “driving on a road on a really foggy morning. Even your lights don’t do a good job of penetrating it,”
He said in situations where smoke was present a rescue team would often be followed by a fire brigade looking for an ignition source. “It might be a battery, or it could be a sparking cable, but it is important to determine the cause of the smoke because you want to extinguish it if you possibly can.”
According to Baue, the new facility is important because it allowed the rescue teams and fire brigades to train in real life conditions. “When a mining disaster occurs, time is of the essence. You want your team to advance safely but quickly, and that’s what the training come in.”
Baue said that the new facility offers the ability to stage a variety of situations. ”You have a facility like this that is four cross cuts wide and four cross cuts deep and you’ve got height, so you can do crawling, you can do the standing up, and you can do the curtain work.”
The setup, he said, is very much like the staging of a disaster response by Emergency Medical Services. “You will stage the interior before the drill so that there might be two men down in one corridor, and another in a corner with a broken leg, and then fill the place with smoke and send in the team to go get them.”
Baue said that the training also gives supervisors a leg up. “Since the building is outfitted with infra-red and night-vision cameras, those of us sitting in the control room can see in the dark and through the smoke. That means you can tell your people if they make mistakes.”
The ability to rewind a video of an exercise allows teams to reflect on what they might have done differently. This saves time and effort because it helps people understand what they are doing, Baue said.
“And that helps build up trust, and mine rescue involves a lot of trust. You have to trust the people that do the work, and the rescue team has to get along," he said. "They become very close because they depend on each other for their lives. When it comes down to it, they need to be able to what they need to do and then cry later.”
Chad Barras, director of safety and compliance at Peabody Energy, praised the facility saying that the size of the new facility helped give the rescue teams the feeling they might have inside a real mine.
“Our teams fire brigades and mine rescue teams have used the site since it’s been built, to train in firefighting skills and other things," Barras said. "This facility is really able to replicate conditions those teams might come across, and the more exposure they have in a non-life-threatening situation, the more they will be prepared for any situation they might hit in real life.”
Jim Ellis, secretary to the Board of Trustees at SIC, said the facility also allows rescue team members a chance to see if they are actually cut out for the team. He recalled that during a previous training someone exited the burn tunnel before the completion of the exercise.
“He realized that he couldn’t do it, and that is OK," Ellis said. "The best place to find that out is during training when no one’s life is on the line. So giving these miners a chance to experience real life conditions is also a way for them to vet themselves and to their relationship to the process. And that saves time, and saves lives.”
Diane Russell, who works with Illinois Eastern Community Colleges mining program, began writing grants to build a simulated coal mine approximately 33 years ago. “The important thing for Illinois miners is this is a facility we have needed for decades.”
"We have been lucky in Illinois," Russell said, "We have not had a catastrophe for a long stretch of time. But the odds are that it could happen. In the last 15 years or so there have been disasters in West Virginia, out West, and in Pennsylvania. So we need to train our miners so they can have confidence that they can handle it if a situation occurs.”
Russell said the cooperation between SIC and IECC has been an ongoing cooperative effort that stretches back 25 years or so. “It’s really a partnership in the best sense of the word. They decided that if they were going to work together in a joint venture, that they were going to do it right.”
She said she wrote several grants to try to get the state and the federal government to come up with the money to do “what they were mandating us to do,” and finally succeeded with a co-competitiveness grant. “It’s not offered anymore, but the state finally approved it, and we got the facility funded."
At the closing of the ceremony, Rice and Bruce also thanked the Illinois department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for the grant that made the facility and services happen; local legislators State Representative Brandon Phelps and State Senator Dale Fowler; and the SIC and IECC Boards of Trustees for their contributions, both personal and financial, to the facility.
Funding for the project initially came from a state investment program meant to help make the coal industry be more competitive. A Coal Competitiveness Grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development provided $220,000 and an additional $15,000 was contributed by each of the colleges, an SIC spokesperson said.
The two schools train about 1,000 miners a year and between 300 and 500 of them are new to coal mining. The facility is housed on the north side of campus adjacent to the burn tunnel and the fire science outdoor classroom, also used for coal mine training.
For information on coal mining technology classes or the upcoming mine safety and rescue training event, visit www.sic.edu/coal or call 618-252-5400, ext. 2360.
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