Mine rescue teams discover a new tool for training.

Imagine you’re in a mine. A rapidly growing fire could starve the mine, and the miners inside it, of oxygen. To save your fellow miners, you need to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible. Your heart races and you break a sweat. But you’re not miles underground — you’re in a VR headset. “It's as close to the real thing as you can get,” says Chief Mine Rescue Officer Shawn Rideout. “It really puts you in that position, in a safe setting, where you can see the results of your decision making.”

Volunteer rescuers with Ontario Mine Rescue are navigating emergency underground simulations just like this one, thanks to VR training scenarios created in partnership with NORCAT. These training scenarios enable rescue volunteers to hone their emergency-response skills in a safe but realistic environment. “We have a belief that all critical, all fatal accidents can be eliminated,” says Alex Gryska, secretary treasurer of the International Mines Rescue Body. “But you have to be prepared to deal with an unfolding event.”

VR will never replace boots-under-ground training but it’s a powerful tool to augment training in the mines, allowing participants to witness scenarios they may not otherwise come across. The VR simulations, based on real emergencies seen in the area’s mines, allow volunteers to encounter hazards that may be too dangerous to simulate underground, such as fires. By incorporating VR training, Ontario Mine Rescue has increased its training frequency while keeping overhead costs down.

“VR is probably the most effective training tool because when it comes to people remembering, they remember through experience,” says Ed Wisniewski, director of technology for NORCAT. “If I can put them in a situation and every step of the way is all about the experience, more of that is retained.”

The Ontario Mine Rescue was established in 1928, after a fire at the Timmins Hollinger Mine claimed 39 lives. While mining accidents have become less frequent in subsequent years, the impacts of any mine accident often hit close to home, especially because mine rescue volunteers are themselves miners, electricians, and engineers. The adrenaline-inducing training scenarios available in VR underscore the dire necessity of preparation.

“A miner becomes a mine rescue volunteer because they have a deep passion for helping people,” says Rideout. “They want to be on that frontline.”