(Associated Press, August 15) – Industries work hard to prevent emergencies, but if a major accident were to happen nearby, Sweetwater County has the best mine rescue teams in the nation ready to respond.
Local teams ruled at national competition in Kentucky late last month, perhaps signaling a return to the local tradition of countrywide dominance.
Genesis Blue team members returned home with national championship trophies in field competition, while Ciner Blue edged them out by 2.5 points to earn overall champion honors and a large traveling trophy.
Eight local teams — two from each trona mine — traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, for the Metal and Non-Metal 2018 National Mine Rescue Contest. Forty-two teams from 16 states challenged one other in three major categories including field, first aid and technician team. Sweetwater County teams placed first in two of the three categories and earned top finishes in every division.
It’s been 10 years since a local team earned the national field championship. Prior to that, though, Sweetwater County won every national field contest from 1996-2008. Overall champion is a fairly new award, first presented in 2002, with local teams winning the contest in 2008 and 2010.
Cindy Phillips, a local mine rescue fan and supporter, traveled to Kentucky for this year’s event. She was impressed with the results.
“They did amazing,” she said of Sweetwater County teams. “I am extremely proud of them.”
Phillips is treasurer of the Southwest Wyoming Mutual Aid Association, and helps train team members and organize local mine rescue contests. She attends nearly every event, and her trademark is a bucket of licorice for participants.
“For Genesis Blue to win field is huge,” Phillips said of the national event.
The team will forever be listed as champion in contest books, and she said when members show up at future competitions, the other teams will say, “Oh, no. Genesis Blue is here.”
Mine rescue, though, is much more than a rivalry. A proficient team can mean the difference between life and death when disaster strikes.
Being successful as a mine rescue team takes a great deal of time, dedication and sacrifice, Phillips said.
The commitment of local teams is evident by the results of Kentucky’s contest. Victory doesn’t come easy, however.
Here’s a look at the four-day national competition, including the perspective of two top teams: Ciner Blue and Genesis Blue.
GOING INTO IT
Ciner Blue captain Kael Brady said his team has been experiencing a rebuilding year, so expectations weren’t all that high going into nationals.
Three veterans had retired from the team, replaced by brand-new guys. Those remaining on the team had switched to different jobs. The new members’ first contest was in Rock Springs in June, which was also Brady’s first go as captain.
“Everyone underestimated us, since we were a new team,” Brady said.
Rather than let that intimidate them, they used it for motivation.
“We knew that we had the potential, but weren’t sure it would all work out. We trained hard and studied and did all we could,” he said.
The new guys also caught on quick, which helped.
At first, the Genesis Alkali teams weren’t even sure that they would be able to compete. The long wall move was scheduled to happen at about the same time, requiring all hands. Management worked out schedules, however, so both teams were able to go to nationals, according to Ben Harcourt, the mine safety coordinator at Genesis Alkali.
DAY ONE: WRITTEN TEST
Every event begins with a written test. Each participant has one hour total to finish and can test in up to two of the three disciplines. Doing well requires a great deal of study, and the outcome often affects who is going to win, Phillips said. Even those who do great in field won’t do well in the end if they didn’t succeed in the written test, she said.
DAYS TWO-FOUR: TEAM ISOLATION/LOCKUP
Teams draw for position in each discipline. Those waiting their turn, usually starting at 6 a.m., have to be in “lockup” until it’s time to compete. They are secluded in a room and not allowed to have any electronic devices including phones, computers, smart watches or even music.
Genesis Blue drew 40 out of 42 teams for the first field problem on Tuesday, so they were in lockup almost the entire day. People in isolation must have an escort to go to the restroom. Those waiting occupy themselves with activities such as poker, corn hole or naps, Dan Romero of Genesis Blue said. A rescue cart can be used as a makeshift hammock and CPR Annie sometimes functions as a pillow.
DAYS TWO-THREE: FIELD COMPETITION
Field competition requires team members to solve a problem involving a mine accident while being timed and observed by judges. Hypothetical challenges may feature a mine fire or explosion, resulting in trapped and potentially injured miners.
The first day of field in Kentucky was very difficult, according to competitors and observers alike. Ciner Blue captain Kael Brady said a lot of the teams weren’t able to finish the problem and some who did had major problems along the way.
The Genesis Blue team took their time and focused on how to rescue the victims and ventilate the mine scenario to the best of their ability, Harcourt said. They knew they were facing some very tough teams, including a few professional teams whose only job is mine rescue.
Organizers can be tricky about how they put things on the field, and one mistake can cost many points, Romero said. There are so many rules and regulations, he added. Two of the veterans on Genesis Blue practically have the rule book memorized, which helps.
Judges give deductions based on mistakes.
As teams explore the mock mine, they must mark what they find on a map. Once completed, that map is compared to one made by organizers, and the two must match. Judges are very strict about this. A team can be deducted for an item found, such as a lamp, marked just a few feet from where it actually was.
Teams must also work to control ventilation; for example, clearing pockets of gas by controlling air flow. Ventilation was another aspect of field that was extremely challenging at nationals this year, Romero said. He said the fact that Genesis Blue didn’t make ventilation mistakes helped in their victory. Going above and beyond what is required at the beginning also seems to make the judges relax a bit, he said.
Brady and his Ciner Blue teammates were hearing other teams talk after the field contest about how they did and problems they had.
He then told his team, “I think we’ve got a shot, but don’t get your hopes up.”
After all, he said, the difference between placing fourth and not placing at all can be just a couple points.
DAY FOUR: FIRST AID & TECHNICIAN TEAM
– Three members of each team are chosen for the first-aid competition, which consists of two stations. In the first, contenders are given a scenario describing a victim’s injury and how it happened. They have 30 minutes to stabilize the patient and get them transported. The second station features a two-person CPR dummy as well as rescue breathing.
Competition was very tight in this event, Brady said. His team placed third.
– Teams select two individuals to compete in the technician team division. Contest organizers put faulty equipment, called “bugs,” in a self-contained breathing apparatus, either a Drager BG-4 or a Biomarine Biopak 240. Drager BG-4 provides up to four hours of breathable air in toxic environments such as those that could be encountered in a mine rescue operation.
In the Drager BG-4 version of technician team competition, a two-member team must find, bench and fix the “bugs.” Benching means running a series of tests to make sure the apparatus is ready for use. One person fixes the BG-4 and the other fixes the gas meter.
The team that completes the task successfully in the fastest time wins.
Genesis Teal’s tech national champions, Kelly Hermansen and Paul Nelson, won the Mutual Aid contest in Rock Springs in June and had been studying in their free time and working hard together to prepare for nationals, Harcourt said. There were a couple difficult problems in the tech contest, and the two had no idea where they might place.
Ciner Blue members didn’t think they had a chance in team tech, so Brady said their second-place finish was a big surprise.
DAY FOUR: THE BANQUET
Brady had been told that the best banquets are the ones where you don’t expect to win anything. It was a great banquet for his Ciner Blue team.
They were surprised and happy to place in the top six in each division, but weren’t really even thinking about the all-around competition, Brady said. When organizers were getting ready to announce the overall champion, someone told them, “You might want to record this; you’re the only team that won a trophy in all three events.”
They chose a teammate to document the proclamation and, sure enough, they were named overall champions.
Ciner Blue team members were also surprised to be named national champions in the field contest. After the Doe Run Maroon team was pronounced as taking second place, Romero said his team thought that they had missed finishing in the top six.
When Genesis Blue and Teal were named winners of both the tech and field problem division, respectively, team members were in awe and speechless with emotion and surprise, Harcourt said.
For at least one member of Genesis Blue, success as a team translates into confidence in life. Romero said he trusts all of his teammates and appreciates their professionalism.
“I would feel absolutely confident going with the guys on my team to respond to an emergency and rescue survivors,” he said.