Had it been a real situation, Jennifer Eckmann might have been in trouble.
But it was a training exercise.
While pea- to marble-size hail fell outside, about 20 volunteer firefighters from North Bend, Morse Bluff, Schuyler and Winslow learned how to use some new grain rescue tubes on Tuesday night.
Wearing harness with a rope attached, Eckmann stood in a corn-filled semi trailer inside the Frontier Co-op. The emergency medical services captain sank into the grain as some was released through the bottom of the trailer. Eventually, she was almost halfway into the grain.
Next, trainer Craig Berg showed firefighters how to form a tube around Eckmann with rounded, interlocking metal sheets. Once the tube was in place, firefighters used 2-gallon plastic buckets to bail corn out of the tube. In a real-life situation, Berg suggests having the victim help bail out the grain, too.
“It takes their mind off of it. … It keeps them from panicking,” he said.
After a short time, Eckmann was able to step onto rungs on the inside of the tube and get out of the grain.
“The rescue doesn’t take that long,” said Berg, who works for Outstate Data of Elbow Lake, Minn., which manufactures the equipment.
Company owner Dale Ekdahl worked with firefighters to design a vertical rescue tube following two deaths in Grant County. He also developed a slide hammer. Ekdahl said fire departments in 18 states use his equipment.
Purdue University statistics indicate 52 injuries or fatalities involving entry into grain bins and other grain storage facilities occurred nationwide in 2010. Half of those cases ended with a death.
Ekdahl said 75 percent of accidents occur on family farms and the rest at commercial facilities such as grain elevators, ethanol plants, seed companies or large corporate farms like feeder lots.
Accidents can occur when an auger that’s drawing grain out through the bottom of the bin becomes clogged. A producer who climbs inside the bin to unclog the auger can be dragged down into the flowing grain.
Producers who go into a bin to dislodge grain stuck to an inside wall become trapped when the grain breaks loose like an avalanche. These cases have a 90 percent death rate, he said.
Farmers also can be instantly buried while walking on bridged grain. In this situation, a hard, thin crust of grain has formed with a void underneath. When the farmer walks on the grain, the crust breaks. Ekdahl compares this situation to someone falling through a layer of thin ice.
“Once a person is buried up over his knees, the average person can’t get out under their own strength. The grain locks them in. A person buried up to their neck has got at least 1,000-plus pounds of pressure on their bodies,” he said.
Grain mold poses another hazard. As grain molds, oxygen in the bin is used and replaced by carbon dioxide, which in certain quantities is deadly to humans.
Training and proper equipment are crucial in rescues. With this rescue equipment, firefighters encircle the trapped person with the tube, pounding it into the grain with the slide hammer. Rescuers bail out the grain and the person climbs out. If the person is injured or unconscious, the tube is made larger to accommodate the victim and an emergency medical technician treating him, while others bail out the grain.
In cases of an avalanche, the tube can be made to form a wall-to-wall arc around the person pinned against a wall.
Ekdahl said Outstate Data has a facility where firefighters and rescue personnel are trained to use the equipment in various, recreated scenarios.
Area firefighters received initial training, but Ekdahl said more will be needed.
North Bend Volunteer Fire Department Chief Kevin Dubbs is pleased about the equipment.
“I’m happy we’re getting it,” he said. “Before, we were trained to get some sheets of plywood and now we’ll have an actual system to use, which is obviously better.”
Dubbs, who’s been part of the fire department for years, said such equipment hasn’t been needed yet.
“But that doesn’t mean you won’t need it (the equipment) tomorrow or an hour from now,” he said. “If we would happen to get a call, we’ll have the equipment on a truck and ready to go.”
Dubbs also said the Frontier Co-op manager is willing to work with firefighters wanting more advanced training.
“Training is important for safety,” Dubbs said. “Anytime we can get a piece of equipment that makes our job easier to save a life, there’s always a plus.”
Farm Credit Services in Columbus provided the equipment.
“We hope they never have to use it (the equipment), but it gives us comfort knowing that if it does need to be used, it could save a life,” said Dick Zach, vice president.