Coal's Power: Draeger equipment has evolved for 100 years here
Draeger's flagship product, the BG4, is a four-hour, closed-circuit breathing device worn by mine rescue crews.
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The name Draeger isn't as well known to Pittsburghers as the storied Heinz or Mellon names. Yet for almost as long as the ketchup and banking titans have been fixtures in the region, the German company has been an intimate partner here with coal miners and mine rescue teams.
Established on First Avenue, Downtown, in 1907 when Pittsburgh was the nation's coal mining hub, Draeger Safety Inc. brought with it the first closed-circuit breathing apparatus for mine rescue teams. The equipment scrubs and recycles exhaled air, allowing rescuers to carry less oxygen and spend more time underground.
Over the years, the basic technology of rebreathers has remained the same. But improvements in materials and design have made the units more comfortable -- reducing the weight of the equipment from the mid-40 pound range to close to 30 pounds -- and extended the maximum breathing time from one to four hours. Modern designs also employ cooling technology to reduce the temperature of the recirculated air, which can get uncomfortably warm.
Today, Draeger's flagship product -- the four-hour BG4 unit -- is used by 85 percent of rescue teams in the United States and Canada across multiple mining industries, CEO Ralf Drews said from Draeger Safety's current U.S. headquarters at the RIDC Park in Findlay, where the company moved about 30 years ago.
In 1937, Draeger introduced the Draeger tube, a portable gas detector allowing miners for the first time to measure dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, methane and other poisons, and throwing many undoubtedly grateful canaries out of work.
Today, the government requires miners to wear gas monitors that sound an alarm when toxic gases are building or oxygen levels are low.
One of Draeger's latest products, launched just a few months ago, is a thermal imaging camera that can be used by rescuers to locate hot spots and by miners to identify bearings on coal conveyor belts that are overheating, posing a risk of fire.
The unique aspect of the device is that it can be used safely in production areas of a mine, where methane gas is more likely and where other cameras could spark a fire, said Mr. Drews, 46, a mechanical engineer who headed global research and development for the company's safety division in Germany before moving to Pittsburgh to take the CEO post in 2008.
Most of the company's safety products are made in Germany and assembled and tested for the U.S. market in Findlay, where other activities include sales and service, administration and research and development.
The company also provides support in mine emergencies.
For both the 2010 Upper Big Branch and 2006 Sago mine disasters in West Virginia, which together killed some 40 miners, Draeger dispatched technical crews to ensure that rescue equipment was working properly, Mr. Drews said.
The men who rely on Draeger equipment are fiercely loyal and proud of the Draeger name, he said.
Mine rescue teams in the United States and Canada have long called themselves "Draegermen," and are known to have the moniker tattooed on their forearms.
"We love you guys," is a sentiment Draeger executives often hear from men in the field, Mr. Drews said.
During one recent visit with rescue crews, Stefan Drager, the CEO of the Lubeck, Germany-based parent company, was mobbed like "a rock star," Mr. Drews said. "Like Brad Pitt."
To see an animated video of miners using Draeger equipment in a fire emergency, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsizqt-D0zI
• Headquarters : RIDC Park, Findlay
• Employees: 200
• History: Based in Pittsburgh since 1907, the company was established to sell and service breathing apparatus used by mine rescue teams and firefighters. It is a subsidiary of Germany-based Drager, founded in Lubeck in 1889, and headed by fifth generation family member Stefan Drager.
• Main products: Breathing apparatus, underground refill stations for breathing equipment, portable gas detectors and dust masks for miners and mine rescue teams, chiefly in the coal industry. Other mining markets include gold, copper, silver, uranium and salt mining. Also provides gas monitoring and respiratory equipment for fire and emergency crews in the oil, gas and chemical industries, and supplies diving equipment to the military.
First Published December 30, 2011 12:00 am