Grain bin rescues difficult and dangerous

Oct 16, 2013

Firefighters train for a grain bin rescue on a simulator with the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety.
Credit Pat Blank for Harvest Public Media

Grain bins on rural farms filled with a year’s harvest can be dangerous and when workers become trapped in the grain, it often ends in death. That’s why in Iowa, volunteer fire departments are using training and new equipment to increase the chances of survival in an entrapment.

A study by Purdue University shows the overall death rate from accidents on American farms has been declining. However, the number of fatalities from grain bin entrapments has been stubbornly steady, hitting an all-time high of 51 in 2010.

Safely freeing a worker trapped in a grain bin is difficult and dangerous. Volunteer firefighters are often a rural area’s first and only line of defense, but they often lack the latest and most advanced training. That’s where Dan Neenan comes in.

Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety based in Peosta, Iowa, conducts rescue training all over the Midwest.

Firefighters learn how to use a V-cut to safely remove a victim from a grain bin.
Credit Pat Blank for Harvest Public Media

“We’re going to do a lot of work with them with the grain rescue tubes and the different procedures for getting the grain out of the rescue tube,” Neenan said at a September training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Neenan ran firefighters through procedures for safely freeing a worker trapped in a mountain of grain and rescuing them from an unsteady grain bin. But bringing these techniques back home is expensive for the often cash-strapped local volunteer forces.

“To outfit a fire department to do a grain bin rescue, you’re talking $7,000 [in equipment costs],” Neenan said. “The other thing is the training – it’s important to have people who understand the dangers of entering in. If the grain bin already engulfed one person, there’s a good chance we could engulf another.”

He credits the Iowa Volunteer Firefighters training fund with providing not only money, but also in-kind contributions of land, equipment and personnel for training in all kinds of safety maneuvers.

“We do a tractor rollover program, a combine-auger rescue program, the grain bin [entrapment] and then we also have a brand new confined space, manure pit simulator,” Neenan said.

Large agricultural companies have come forward this year with donations of safety equipment. Agribusiness giant DuPont Pioneer is planning to outfit 16 departments this year, from Riceville in northern Iowa to Mount Pleasant in the southeast part of the state. Several of Iowa’s ethanol plants have made similar gestures.

Community support is just as vital. When Kevin Larson’s father died, his family donated support to local authorities.

The National Education Center for Agricultural Safety travel across the Midwest to train rescuers in the latest safety techniques.
Credit Pat Blank for Harvest Public Media

“Because he was a farmer and was involved as a trustee, when my father passed away my mother thought it was a good idea to donate one of these grain rescue systems to our local fire department, hoping they’d never have to use it but they’d have it if they needed it,” Larson said.

Rural fire departments often rely on that kind of assistance, especially in an emergency.

“Everybody helps, whether it’s the construction guy with a backhoe – when you have a hay fire or something like that – to roll out the hay,” said Dan Paidar, a volunteer for the Mechanicsville, Iowa, fire department. “It’s a community effort, especially in small town. And without volunteer firefighters we couldn’t afford fire service.”

Neenan says something as simple as donating a few bucks at a fireman’s pancake breakfast or soup supper could mean the difference between a rural fire department being rescue ready or not fully equipped when the emergency call comes.