BELOIT - Imagine being a firefighter called to a grain bin entrapment, finding a victim buried waist deep or worse in kernels of corn squeezing him tighter by the minute as it engulfs his body.
Firefighters in western Columbiana County don't have to imagine that nightmare scenario and the daunting task of figuring out what to do- they simulated it during grain bin rescue training Saturday at Conny Farms on Buck Road.
Thanks to a grant won by the Homeworth Volunteer Fire Company, they learned how to use a grain rescue tube they'll have at their disposal if a real accident occurs at one of the more than 300 estimated grain bins in the area - an advantage they didn't have before.
Beloit Fire Chief Larry Barnett uses a saw to cut into a piece grain bin material held by Hanoverton Assistant Fire Chief Jason Raymond and Instructor Denny Green from the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety during a grain bin rescue training Saturday at Conny Farms in Beloit. The purpose of cutting into the material was to simulate relieving the pressure in a grain bin during a rescue attempt if necessary. The Homeworth Volunteer Fire Company, which hosted the event, also invited departments from North Georgetown, Winona, Damascus, Minerva, Washington in Stark County and Deerfield to the event. (Salem News photo by Mary Ann Greier)
"We were very lucky to be chosen, but I think it's something we need," Homeworth firefighter and company president Albert Johnston said.
Farms and silos dot the landscape throughout the county, but especially in the western townships where the agriculture industry is prevalent. Johnston farms himself and reads a lot of farm magazines and has read about grain bin tragedies. In many cases, he said it's more of a recovery operation because firefighters don't know what they're doing and don't have the proper equipment for a rescue.
He couldn't recall any grain bin entrapments in recent years in the area, but statistics show there are more and more nationwide.
"It's bound to happen, just a matter of when and where. Hopefully we'll be ready for it. At least now we'll be able to try," he said.
Johnston was reading a copy of Successful Farming magazine last fall when he noticed an article asking for applications for a grain bin rescue training program which included the awarding of a grain rescue tube. He contacted fellow firefighter Greg Carver, who also serves as chairman of the Knox Township Board of Trustees, about writing the grant application.
Out of 267 applicants nationwide, Homeworth won the grant which covered the $2,700 price tag for the tube and paid for the training session conducted Saturday by the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety based in Iowa. The grant program was sponsored by the magazine, the NECAS, FS Grain Systems and Grain Systems, Inc.
Carver said part of what they stressed was how they planned to share the knowledge gained with other departments in the tri-county area of Columbiana, Stark and Mahoning counties. During the training session, 30 firefighters took part and became certified in grain bin rescue, which means they'll be able to train other firefighters in the area.
Departments taking part besides Homeworth included North Georgetown, Hanoverton, Beloit, Damascus, Winona and Washington located in Stark County. Some Deerfield Volunteer Fire Department representatives came to observe. Deerfield Farms provided lunch for the event held at the farm owned by Mike Conny, who opened up his property to the firefighters, other volunteers, trainers and the media.
Deerfield firefighter Paul Boivin didn't just observe - he volunteered to be a victim who was placed in a make-shift grain bin filled with kernels of corn. He learned what it's like for a victim.
"You can't move. You can feel your heartbeat through your legs, that's how tight it was," he said as he shook corn from his shoes.
Dan Neenan, manager of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety in Peosta, Iowa, said he spends a lot of weekends traveling with the grain bin prop they built to teach firefighters about grain bin rescue.
"I want them to understand the dangers of grain," he said.
In 2009, there were 551 fatalities, that's 26 deaths per 100,000 workers. He said tractor-related accidents are still the most common cause of death in the agriculture industry, accounting for 42 percent of the deaths.
He explained that with grain bins, the feed can get crusted over on top maybe 3 or 4 inches thick, but then there could be a drop of 20, 30 or 40 feet. A farmer may think it's hard enough to stand on and get sucked down. Large grain bins can store more than a million bushels, with many grain bins varying in size and storing anywhere from 70 to 100,000 bushels. He said the industry is storing and moving more grain than ever before.
"Economically, it's good for the farmer. We just need to make sure it's safe," Neenan said.
The grain rescue tube consists of four panels weighing about 27 pounds each which fit together to form a tube or seal around a victim. During a simulation, a victim wearing a safety harness for safety purposes was placed in the grain almost waist-deep. Two firefighters, also wearing harnesses, constructed the tube around the victim and gently rocked it down so that it was completely around the victim.
Then they used shop vacs, helmets or shovels to remove the grain from inside the tube, gradually uncovering the victim enough so the victim could pull himself up and out of the tube to be pulled to safety.
If the victim is conscious and able to participate, he can direct the shop vac tube to suck out the grain, taking his mind off of his predicament.
"Every kernel we take out is one kernel closer to our victim being free," Neenan said, noting the whole process took about 20 minutes.
He said they urge farmers to think and act safely and to take a critical eye when it comes to safety, making sure all safety guards are in place and to slow down.
"Farming is the most dangerous occupation in the nation," Carver said.
If an incident occurs, he said they want to be ready and the training will help them be ready.
Besides learning how to use the grain rescue tube, firefighters also learned how they can relieve the pressure inside a grain bin by cutting into the sides, which they simulated with grain bin pieces and a saw.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org