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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Firefighters work to extract Harmeyer during a grain bin rescue exercise Saturday. In 2010, 51 people became trapped in storage bins, and 26 of them died, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Farm Bureau Insurance partnered with Lutheran Trauma Center to work with Stateline Farm Rescue, an agricultural rescue training agency, which educated about 40 first responders.

  • Russ Harmeyer, a firefighter from the Arcola Fire Department, prepares to be “rescued” from a grain bin Saturday.

Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am

Rescuers train to cheat death on the farm

Firefighters learn minutes count; corn can be like quicksand

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Mark Baker doesn't mess around when it comes to teaching volunteer firefighters how to rescue someone trapped in a grain bin. Even when it's a carefully controlled situation.

“Keep digging, keep digging, keep digging. Let's go!” he shouts to trainees scooping grain from around a volunteer standing inside a mobile silo. “Too much time. Too much time.”

Baker knows that every minute counts when someone is trapped, being slowly crushed by the pressure of corn or soybean kernels. It's like a drowning, he said, with the victim unable to breathe because of the intense pressure placed on his chest.

“The pounds of grain pressure on their bodies constricts them over and over,” he added.

About 40 volunteer firefighters gathered Saturday on the Lutheran Hospital campus in southwest Fort Wayne for training in grain bin and farm equipment rescues. They represented Woodburn, Avilla, Poe, St. Joseph and other areas in Allen County.

“We're trying to protect our best resource, which is our farmers,” said Baker, a trainer with Stateline Farm Rescue.

The Orangeville, Illinois, company travels the country, training first responders in rural areas how to rescue farming accident victims.

In 2010, 51 people were trapped in grain storage in bins and 26 of them died, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA describes grain handling as “a high-hazard industry” in which “workers can be exposed to risks such as fires and explosions, suffocation from engulfment and entrapment in grain bins, falls from heights, and crushing/amputation injuries.”

Grain, experts say, can act like quicksand when someone is walking inside a silo to try to move it.

Allen County Farm Bureau Inc. sponsored the all-day training, which included classroom and hands-on sessions. Last year, two people were trapped in grain bins just in the eastern part of Allen County, said Tom Miller, who is vice president of the local farm bureau's board.

“Thankfully, both people got out alive,” he said. “If the fire department had done the wrong thing, it could have been disastrous.”

Jeb Sheidler, executive director of Lutheran's trauma services, said the majority of farm-related accidents are preventable. But, when they do happen, rescuers need to know what to do.

Sheidler taught the responders how to control heavy bleeding after a victim has been removed from farm equipment, such as an auger. When a tourniquet isn't available, a pumped up blood pressure cuff can work in a pinch, he said.

“Farming is a very dangerous occupation,” Sheidler said, adding that people older than 60 and younger than 15 suffer a disproportionately higher number of farming injuries. “We see a lot of kids injured in farm accidents.”

Saturday's training included how to use tools to cut into grain bins' sheet metal sides.

Katherine Tsakkos was one of the volunteers who climbed into the grain bin. The pressure on her legs and hips was intense she said afterward.

The outline of individual corn kernels was still visible on her legs half an hour after she was “rescued.”

“Under prolonged conditions, it could cause damage,” she said. “It's very tight. It really is.”

Sam Sliger, who has volunteered with the St. Joseph Township fire department for more than four years, has never been called out on a farm rescue.

Listening to the trainers, he gained an appreciation for how dangerous farming is. And he gained something else from the training that three others from his squad completed:

Confidence in mounting a grain bin rescue.

The sobering part was learning out to cut into grain bins to lessen some of the pressure. Because rescuers want to provide quick relief, they might need to wield those power tools while dangling dozens of feet in the air if someone is trapped near the top of a 40- or 50-foot silo, Sliger said. 

“It's a gut check,” he added.

sslater@jg.net