Kari Lentowicz (center) co-founded Diamonds in the Rough in 2016. She is a seasoned responder, and has competed at and judged various mine rescue events over the past 18 years.

In the run up to the 2024 International Mines Rescue Competition, Kari Lentowicz, co-founder of the Diamonds in the Rough all-female mine rescue team, speaks to Carly Leonida about the team’s preparations and her own journey into mine rescue 

Since its establishment in 1999, the International Mines Rescue Competition (IMRC) has been a focal point for mine rescue teams around the globe; a chance to get together, share best practices and put the skills and knowledge of their responders to the test.

This year, the competition will be held in Boyacá, Colombia, from 13-20, September, and one team in particular caught my eye… Diamonds in the Rough is the first all-female mine rescue team to compete internationally. Founded in 2018 in Saskatchewan, Canada, by Kari Lentowicz, Bruce Coley, and Randy De Cecco, the team aims to raise the profile of women in the mining industry and especially in non-traditional roles.

“Our goal is to foster the development of a women’s underground mine rescue team to advance and retain the skill level necessary to provide emergency rescue services and compete at an international level in what is traditionally a male-dominated environment,” the trio state on the Diamonds Linkedin page.

The team has gone on to compete multiple times (nationally and internationally) since its inception, and has done so very successfully, placing sixth overall out of 22 teams in the 2022 IMRC in the US, including coming second in high-angle rope assessment, third in tech and theory and fourth in firefighting underground.

“The team did phenomenally in the 2022 competition,” Lentowicz told me when we spoke in early May. “They were one of our least experienced teams with the majority having less than five years of experience in the field and having only spent five days training together. But they were tenacious with a passion to learn and succeed, and the confidence those women walked away with was so great to see.”

The Importance of Allies

Lentowicz is a seasoned responder herself and has competed at and judged various events over the past 18 years. She now specializes in emergency management and quality consulting, and has trained multiple emergency response and rescue teams for professional mining and competition deployments.

“When I first started working underground, I was curious to know what the capabilities of the mine’s rescue team were,” she said. “I was working alongside members of my family and friends, and I wanted to know that we were all in good hands. In 2006, I decided to join the team. I love helping people, administering first aid and firefighting. And I was fortunate to have an amazing coach — our mine rescue coordinator, Bruce Coley. He didn’t care if you were male or female, just that you had a passion for it. He knew that there were ways to work smarter, not harder.

“Bruce has always been a strong supporter of women in mining, and especially women in mine rescue,” said Lentowicz. “My fellow responders became my brothers. We were all proud to stand alongside each other and it was a great overall experience.”

With few female role models to look up to, allies have played an important role in Lentowicz’s own journey in mine rescue.

“Women didn’t really come into mine rescue until the 1970s,” she said. “Even now, there are places where it’s still very much a boy’s club. I’ve talked to a few women who have been sexually assaulted by people in rescue teams, and often, there are strong feelings against women joining teams at all, because we’re often perceived to be too small or not strong enough to carry casualties or do the physical work.

“Speaking from experience, with the right methods and training, there’s nothing that women can’t do, and Diamonds has proven that on the international stage. Mine rescue is a team job and even in situations where a responder or two gets hurt — which, by the way, we train rigorously for — there are processes and procedures in place, including back up teams, to ensure that everyone gets out safe. It’s never just down to one person.”

In 2007, Lentowicz became the first woman in Saskatchewan to participate in the underground portion of the provincial mine rescue competition, and in 2015, she became the first female mine rescue instructor in Saskatchewan.

“Since then, there have been a lot more women compete in underground mine rescue, and a ton of women are joining their employers mine rescue programs which is fantastic,” she told me. “There seems to be a lot more support for younger generations today, and teachers are doing a good job at pushing equality, diversity and allyship.

“Aside from the Diamonds team, I saw two other women compete on one mixed team in Russia in 2018, and I didn’t even count how many competed in the US in 2022 — there were a lot. Four of the top five teams that year had both men and women on them, which just goes to show that we work better together.”

The Diamonds team in action.

We Work Better Together

Lentowicz said that often there’s a misconception that Diamonds is about showing people that women are better than men, which is not the case at all. It’s about representation.

“We want to show that women are viable competitors and valuable mine rescue team members, and that we belong in this environment,” she said. “Creating more inclusive environments ultimately results in stronger teams.”

Lentowicz makes a good point; there are multiple studies that demonstrate the economic and strategic benefits women can bring to office-based teams through diversified skills and thinking. Why shouldn’t that be the case in the field too? For instance, many women are brought up to be natural risk assessors, to be good at prioritization and to solve problems logically.

“It’s also been proven that more diverse teams and workplaces make everyone, not just women, feel safer to speak up and share new ideas,” said Lentowicz. “There are legitimate benefits for everyone in having more women in mining, including on mine rescue teams.”

Education is a big part of Diamonds’ work, whether through school/class visits, talks at industry events or on social media (which is how I found Lentowicz, incidentally), showcasing women in mine rescue roles, and enabling people — youths especially — to ask questions and learn is important in showing future generations that there is a place for them in this industry.

The Road to Colombia

With less than three months until the IMRC event in September, Lentowicz and her team are turning their attentions to sifting through applications for the team, training camps and fundraising to get the team to Colombia.

“Applications for the team closed at the end of May and we’ve had a phenomenal level of interest,” said Lentowicz. “We give our ladies two opportunities each to compete, so we have some team members who are returning, and we’ll have some new faces joining too. We have all the logistics, kit and training planned out and I’m brushing up my Spanish!

“Our biggest task now is fundraising. It will require about C$200,000 to send the team to compete. The costs are astronomical this year compared to previous competitions, but we have a couple of key sponsors who we’re working with and we’re looking for more. Diamonds is a not-for-profit organization, and we really value our supporters.”

She added: “For me, it’s about so much more than where we place in the competition. Seeing the increase in confidence and skills that our team members get in just under two weeks, and the leadership abilities that they didn’t even know they had come out, that they can then take back to their own sites… that makes it all worthwhile.”

To find out more about Diamonds, contact Kari Lentowicz at DiamondsRescueERO@gmail.com.

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