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Estevan mine rescue team ready for emergencies, and for annual competition

The 54th annual Emergency Response Mine Rescue competition will be held June 1 at Prairieland Park in Saskatoon, and the Estevan MRT will be sending participants and other team members to the event.

ESTEVAN — The Mine Rescue Team (MRT) at Westmoreland Mining Holdings LLC's Estevan Mine is getting members ready to face other MRTs in Saskatchewan.

The 54th annual Emergency Response Mine Rescue competition will be held June 1 at Prairieland Park in Saskatoon, and the Estevan MRT will be sending participants and other team members to the event.

Seven members of the Estevan team, as well as coaches and the safety manager, dedicated a good portion of May to practising and preparing for the 54th annual Emergency Response Mine Rescue Skills Competition that will be held June 1 at Prairieland Park in Saskatoon as a culmination of Saskatchewan Mining Week.

For three weeks, Derek Choma, Tanner Weger-Brandow, Brandon Schopp, Austin Dovell, John Wells and Tyler Ursu – led by captain Jessica Klarholm and guided by coaches Cory Gibson and Travis Olver, and supervised by safety manager Guy Hiltz – were giving it all they have to perfect their skills, reactions and teamwork.

While performing to their best if a call for help ever comes is always the main goal, Klarholm said they also aim high for the competition.

"We have a really strong team this year. We're all really looking forward to going. It's a different vibe this year. Obviously, we want to place well. We're doing our best to prepare and we want it to go well, we want to look good doing it and come away with trophies and yeah, we want to win, that feels nice. But to get through the experience and come out of it going, 'Yeah, we crushed that,' that's a really good part," Klarholm said.

"We're in this momentum of up and onward and building, and going up there gives us a really good chance to get one more leg up so when we come back to the site, if I have to work with any of those guys, we all know each other well enough that no matter what kind of incident we respond to, we know we can manage it and that's the really exciting part."

Having the team working together for a few years now helps them improve and grow beyond where they used to be before, she said.

"We feel like at this point, we're miles ahead of where we were last year at the end of our training, that's really satisfying," Klarholm said. "That's because we have the same members that we had last year, so instead of starting from square one you get to build on what you had."

While the training process is similar, the scenarios get more advanced, allowing team members to deepen their knowledge and skills, and become more efficient both in real-life emergencies and for the competition.

"Anytime any of us see a weak point, we'll build something around that," Klarholm said.

At the competition, all teams will have to do several scenarios, including surface, practical, rope high-angle and fire problems. They will also have to write an exam and do a gas test. Just like in real life, MRTs won't know what kind of challenges they are to face. They have a list of minimum equipment they have to bring, and then they have to find the best and safest way to approach the situations.

Some training scenarios include medical emergencies, motor vehicle accidents, entrapments and other things that resonate with real-life emergencies. They do a lot of air monitoring and ventilation of spaces so that they can enter a confined space.

"You pick one topic that you want to train, and then you break it down into different aspects that are going to make you successful to get through there," Klarholm noted.

A lot of training includes real mine equipment, as "It's one thing to do it in here [the training facility], in a controlled environment, and then when we get to take it out into the field, it escalates to another level," she added.

Hiltz, who'll be heading to Saskatoon as well as part of the Saskatchewan Mining Association safety committee, noted that while the company always cheers for the team, their main priority is safety at the site.

"As a company, we support mine rescue; it's an important aspect of our operation. It's always nice to know that the experts are there if we need them," Hiltz said. "That being said, we hope never to have to utilize them at all. And the team that's assembled here, they have practised diligently and train diligently to be ready for whenever something happens.

"And the competition itself is just a way for them to highlight their skills and show that they know a lot of stuff, and that they can do a lot if they need to. So, we're excited about the competition and, win or lose, we're in good shape."

New team members share their stories

Dovell is one of the newest members and will be competing for the second time. He joined the team in January 2023, soon after he started working at the Estevan mine. He said the duties resonated with him.

"I've been involved with the fire and first responders for a number of years. My mom's been a first responder since I was two. And I've been since I was 18. I've been to school for firefighting in 2021. And I like my fire department in Estevan, so I figured this was the right move," Dovell said.

He noted that with a bit of crossover, mine rescue training offers a different set of skills, and benefits his firefighting as well. While there is quite a bit of training between the two volunteer groups, Dovell noted that the employer allows for that.

He echoed Klarholm's statement about having a strong team heading into the competition, with members all having their specialties.

"Fire would be my specialty. I'm pretty comfortable in fire and then searching and stuff like that. Then you got the guys that are good with ropes, and then the couple that are there for your first aid, so you mesh all them together and then you form a pretty strong team," Dovell said.

"It's fun being with a good group of people. We got a good strong seven coming into this year's competition, so we're shooting for pretty high this year," he added.

Another member new on the team but not competing this year is Matthew Mutz. He participates in the training and will go to Saskatoon to support the team and substitute in case it's needed.

Mutz joined the rescue team last fall, also soon after he started at the mines.

"I live in a small town [of Manor]. When I moved there, I just wanted to give back to the community. So, I joined the volunteer fire department. … And I just realized how much I really don't know about first aid and first responding and safety. I thought this would be a good opportunity to broaden my knowledge, and it's really worked out for the first aid side of things," Mutz said.

He noted that first aid and rope training are beneficial for his firefighting duties and his fire knowledge helps the mine rescue team. He also noted that the team in itself is a source of knowledge.

"It's almost overwhelming the amount of knowledge that this team carries," Mutz said. "I've been in the oilfield my whole life and you think you get a good grasp of using SCBAs [self-contained breathing apparatus], and just basic first aid and rescue. But when you get working with these guys, you really realize how much more there is to it and what you really don't know. So, I'm really happy I joined because I became a much more efficient first responder since joining."

He said he is looking forward to being with the team in Saskatoon.

"I'm excited to see what it's all about. They've really talked it up and so hopefully it lives up to what they said I'm very interested to see how it all plays out," Mutz said. "I was nervous at the start, but the role I'm playing into it, it's a pretty good way to get my foot in the door. And they've been a great group of people [to work with and learn from]."

The competition in Saskatoon is free for the public to attend.