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Published: Sunday, April 23, 2006
Page: 1B
Byline: KEN WARD JR.

WHEELING - Amber Helms inspected the blue plastic device and peppered its maker with questions.

What kind of range does it have? How long do the batteries last? Does it really work?

K&A Rescue Technologies says its Ortovox F1 Focus is used to find skiers lost in avalanches and firefighters buried in collapsed buildings. Now, the company wants to expand its market to the coal industry.

"This works," said K&A's Michael Kanzia. "It's been tested underground."

Helms said she knows that the F1 Focus, an analog transmitter and receiver, might not have saved her father. Terry Helms is believed to have died from the impact of the Jan. 2 explosion that ripped through the Sago Mine. But, she says, it might have helped her father's 11 co-workers who died before rescuers could reach them.

"They would have been able to find Dad, and once they found Dad, they would have been able to find the other men faster," Amber Helms said.

Helms joined hundreds of mine safety experts late last week for a landmark International Mining Health and Safety Symposium at Wheeling Jesuit University.

As part of the two-day event, participants bused from campus to downtown Wheeling to tour exhibits and talk with dozens of manufacturers of cutting-edge mine rescue gear.

On folding tables on the main floor of the WesBanco Arena, companies showed off prototype refuge chambers, specialized breathing devices and underground wireless text-messaging devices.

"I'm impressed," Helms said after talking with the vendors Thursday morning. "We were told this technology doesn't exist, but obviously it does."

Among the exhibitors were two representatives of Mine Site Technologies, the Australian company that makes Personal Emergency Devices and Trackers, the best known of the wireless communications and miner locator devices.

Company representative Mike Koesterer said that Mine Site recently finished a successful test of the PED at a large Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama.

By using wire antennae spread out on the surface, above mines, Mine Site avoids losing communications when explosions shut down other underground equipment.

"We threw [the wire] in the back of a truck and drove around in a circle," Koesterer said, describing the antennae set-up process. "In about two hours, we had it set up."

Mike Foletti, Mine Site's sales and marketing director, said his company knows that the American coal industry is questioning whether the technology really works.

"There will always be detractors," Foletti said. "If every coal miner in Australia is using it, it's not because it doesn't work."

Another vendor, the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped, showed off the "lifelines" that its more than 200 physically challenged employees make to help miners find their way out of smoky mines.

The lifelines are made of fire-retardant rope or cable, and equipped with directional cones that let miners know if they are headed in the right direction.

"It's very impressive," sales representative Philip Fuller says, showing photographs of his firm's factory in Ebensburg, Pa.

In the wake of the Sago disaster and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire, mine safety advocates have renewed calls for mine operators to provide additional oxygen supplies, better communications devices and rescue chambers in the nation's underground mines.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin has already pushed through the Legislature a new law requiring such equipment in West Virginia.

Nationally, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has published a rule to require more oxygen supplies and lifelines. But the MSHA has only said that it will study wireless communications, and agency deputy assistant secretary Bob Friend used part of his symposium appearance to question the wisdom of using rescue chambers in underground coal mines.

"Advocates of emergency shelters should keep in mind that coal is a fuel," Friend said. "In a coal mine, a fire has a virtually unlimited supply of fuel."

Friend warned that having miners seek refuge in such chambers during a fire "may endanger, rather than help, underground coal miners."

Friend also offered a general caution to advocates of wireless communicators.

"There is a great deal of new technology out there, but great ideas and bells and whistles that look good and sound good may not be enough," Friend said. "They may not work when you need them."

Bruce Watzman, a National Mining Association lobbyist who specializes in safety issues, also questioned the push to require new safety gear.

"Early reports of the availability of new technologies were either untrue or incorrect," Watzman said.

And Jim Dean, acting state mine safety director, added his own criticism about mine refuge chambers - devices his agency recently wrote a rule to require in West Virginia mines.

"I struggle with the concept of developing a chamber that will be placed inside a fuel source," Dean said. "I just question that, folks, I really do."

Later, Dean clarified his remarks. He said he would implement the new rule, but believes rescue chambers should be designed simply to provide clean air, and not to withstand explosions or major fires.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't put emergency chambers in," Dean said. "We will put them in in West Virginia."

Steve Webber, a former mine safety director serving on a task force to implement West Virginia's new rules, said he has so far been impressed with rescue chambers and wireless communicators.

"Some of this is old technology," Webber said. "There just hasn't been any reason or any push for the companies to use it."

Davitt McAteer, former MSHA chief and Manchin's special adviser for mine safety issues, said that the equipment on display at last week's symposium speaks for itself.

"The fact that you have technologies here that are in place in mines in North America and other parts of the world suggests that the notion that these technologies don't work or don't exist is a misnomer," McAteer said. "It does exist. It is there and it is operational."

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.'s continued coverage of the Sago Mine disaster and mine safety issues is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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