Firefighters learn the ropes of grain-bin rescues

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Photo by Don McMasters / for The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Firefighters practice placing a rescue tube during grain-bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

Early on a Tuesday morning, Dave Newcomb stood in front of about 20 firefighters sitting at desks inside an office building near the Bunge Milling plant in Danville, Ill.

Most of the firefighters wore dark blue shirts with “DFD” stamped on the back. Some were volunteers that looked like they were fresh out of high school, while others were veteran rescuers grayed with obvious experience. As the last few firefighters trickled into the office building, Newcomb got up, turned on a projector and announced the beginning of an eight-hour class focused on grain-bin rescue training.

Firefighters listen to Fire Service Institute instructor  Dave Newcomb during grain-bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Firefighters listen to Fire Service Institute instructor Dave Newcomb during grain-bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

“We’re here to learn how to function as a member for a technical rescue team during a grain-bin rescue,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb has taught the same extensive class for more than three years while working as the agriculture rescue program manager for the Illinois Fire Service Institute. In those three years, he has taught thousands of rescuers how to safely approach grain-bin rescues, which can last anywhere from four to six hours and require more than 100 rescuers.

His main goal for the training is to persuade rescuers to think about their own safety. Last year alone, he brought that message to almost 2,000 rescuers.

Newcomb dedicates his time to grain-bin rescue training because – since 1964 – there have been at least 900 fatal and non-fatal grain-bin entrapments in the United States, according to research from Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program. During many of those entrapments, rescuers arrive and hastily get to work trying to save the victim. In their haste, some become victims themselves.

Out of all grain-bin related fatalities, untrained rescuers account for about 60 percent of the deaths, said Newcomb. Additionally, about 50 percent of all fatalities actually occur after the rescue has begun.

“The biggest things with rescues like this are you want to work so fast, you want to get it done now, the quicker the better as far as getting a person out and rescued and safe,” said Don McMasters, a captain with the Danville Fire Department who attended the training. “But, most of these rescues, in reality, are long term things.”

To get rescuers to slow down and start thinking about their own safety, Newcomb divided the eight-hour training session into two parts: a classroom portion and a practical, hands-on portion.

On that Tuesday morning, Newcomb began the classroom portion by going over grain-bin rescue safety from “size-up” to “termination.” Size-up focused on questions that responders must deal with before even getting to the grain bin, such as figuring out how many rescuers to bring on the first truck to the scene. According to Newcomb, at least 24 rescuers are needed to even start uncovering an engulfed victim.

Termination focused on the aftermath of the rescue, such as speaking with the press and offering to help the farmer recover any emptied grain.

From there, Newcomb transitioned into a portion about the different dangers that grain bins present rescuers.

While suffocation is the leading cause of death in grain-bin related fatalities, it is certainly not the only cause. Victims who have been engulfed by tons of grain but survive are susceptible to a condition known as “crush-injury syndrome,” a condition where muscles are crushed and release poisons into the bloodstream. Other dangers include sudden explosions, excess carbon monoxide and toxic fumes.

Just recently, Newcomb said a father and son in Iowa entered a grain bin to evaluate damage after a bin caught fire. Even though they waited until the flames were long extinguished, they died quickly after entering the bin because there was no oxygen. The fire had burned it all away, leaving poisonous carbon monoxide in its place.

During the practical portion of the training, Newcomb instructed rescuers how to cut into the side of a grain bin with a saw to release the grain, allowing for the successful recovery of the victim. To do so, rescuers must make large cuts in the shape of a “V” on opposing sides of a bin. The narrow part of the “V” allows grain to funnel out in a controllable manner.

Firefighters learn how to cut grain-relief slots during grain-bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Firefighters learn how to cut grain-relief slots during grain-bin rescue training at the Danville Bunge facility on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013.

He also gave a demonstration on rope and knot tying, which was followed by a demonstration on using grain-bin rescue tubes – giant, hollow cylinders placed around victims to separate them from the surrounding sea of grain.

Using the tubes helps alleviate the “unimaginable” amount of pressure the grain forces onto a victim’s body, Newcomb said. The pressure is so powerful that it takes more than 1,500 pounds of force to free a body submerged under less than two feet of grain.

“It’s just like being shrink wrapped, and it’s just a huge amount of force against your body,” said Newcomb, who was once intentionally buried up to his rib cage for training purposes. “The only movement I had was to be able to wiggle my toes inside my steel toe shoes.”

Newcomb served as a firefighter for more than 35 years, serving 30 of those years with the City of Urbana. During his career as a firefighter, he also served as a member of Urbana’s technical rescue team. In addition to his career as a firefighter, Newcomb worked on a farm, which provided him the added advantage of understanding how grain handlers and farmers operate.

“When I talked about working on the farm, working alone, working long hours, delays and all that – been there, done that,” said Newcomb. “It allows me to keep in touch with trends and it makes me a whole lot more aware.”

The grain-bin training session in Danville came two months after a 55-year-old man from Sidney, Ill., died while working in a Premier Cooperative grain bin. Newcomb said his death is evidence of the difficulties of grain bin rescues. He said rescuers uncovered the Sidney man on three separate occasions before getting him out completely, but the grain kept shifting and repeatedly burying him.

The grain facility in Sidney, Ill., on Tuesday, August 13, 2013.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The grain facility in Sidney, Ill., on Tuesday, August 13, 2013.

Many of the Danville firefighters had already taken grain-bin training courses, and some of them already had firsthand knowledge of the difficulties of grain-bin rescues.

McMasters has been with the Danville Fire Department for 18 years and is also the coordinator of his department’s technical rescue team. McMasters said his department already experienced two gain-bin rescue calls this year.

“This is twice already where we’ve been dispatched out for grain bin rescues and it’s not even harvest season yet,” said McMasters. “It’s been – the last couple years – pretty large numbers as far as the number of grain bin engulfments there’s been.”

If Newcomb could give one piece of advice to grain handlers and rescuers, he said it would be to always “lock out” and “tag out.” He said the majority of incidents can be avoided if workers just make sure the equipment is off before entering a bin, and clearly labeled so other workers know somebody is in a bin before potentially turning a piece of equipment on.

“The common denominators, the common things I’m seeing is the fact people are in the bins with the unloading equipment operating,” said Newcomb. “Stop that unloading process, and allow that grain to be static.”

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