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Rugby Fire Department receives equipment, training to save farmers’ lives

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 11, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT Rugby firefighters use a specialized auger to remove grain from around a volunteer trapped in a mock grain bin.

Members of the Rugby Volunteer Fire Department met at the Rugby Fire Hall Sept. 1 for a hamburger supper and training to use new equipment they hope they’ll never need.

The equipment, for use in grain bin rescues, came to the fire department courtesy of Rugby Insurance Agency, which sponsored them in a national contest held by Nationwide Insurance. Rugby Insurance Agency contributed $5,000 toward the purchase of the equipment and a training session by Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety.

Neenan showed the firefighters the equipment, which consists of a set of panels, each one with handles attached for use as steps to climb upward. The panels fit together, making a tube around victims trapped in grain bins. Rescuers slide the first panel down into the grain near the victim, then a second panel slides down into the grain, attaching to the side of the first. The rest of the panels slide in the same way until a tube forms around the victim.

Three groups of trainees, each with three rescuers and one “victim,” used the equipment in a small-scale grain bin filled with corn to learn how to respond to entrapments.

In addition to the tube, the equipment also includes an auger with a connector for a cordless drill to provide power to pump out 2.5 bushels per minute of grain from around the victim. The auger works much faster than scoops or shovels to remove the grain around the victim, who often has little time left before he or she suffocates.

Neenan showed how common objects can be adapted to rescue trapped individuals. He used plastic pop bottle crates from a grocery store to help a rescuer or victim get their footing in the grain. As the grain level inside the tube goes down with the auger pumping, the victim can use the tube’s handles to climb up and be lifted by rescuers. The rescuers take the tube apart one panel at a time from a safe distance so, as Neenan said, “they don’t become a part of the problem.”

Neenan, who lives in Iowa, travels across the country in a pickup truck pulling a trailer carrying two small grain bin replicas for the training to fire departments who win the safety package. The 2021 winners had been entered in the contest between January and April. Nationwide Insurance has held the contest since 2014 to recognize Grain Bin Safety Week.

Ag businesses recognized Grain Bin Safety Week Feb. 21-27 in 2021.

“We were in Vermont, Maryland and Delaware earlier this year, down to Texas and up at the Canadian border in Pembina last night. They won a tube.” Neenan said of his travels to promote grain bin safety.

Neenan said, “If we take a look at the problem, 2010 was the worst year on record in America for grain entrapments and fatalities (in the USA). 2020 came really, really close. It was the I-29 corridor that had nine fatalities there.”

Neenan added, “If you take a look at it, those harvests the year before were late and they were put away with a high moisture content. So, it freezes and crusts at the top, and as it feeds out of the bin, it creates a void area. And that void area could be three feet deep; it could be 30 feet deep. And then, somebody gets in and walks across it and the grain can’t support their weight, so down they go. Or, the grain gets moldy and clumpy and goes down and settles on the sump pump, then grain doesn’t flow through the sump. That’s why you get a farmer in the grain bin, to try to clean that out so grain will flow through for them.”

“So, when we have that poor year grain quality-wise, the next year is when you’re going to have the entrapments and fatalities,” Neenan explained. “Right now, it’s looking pretty good,” Neenan said of the current safety situation. “(Entrapments) could still happen, but not at the frequency as it’s happened before.”

Neenan said different types of grain pose different safety hazards for farmers.

“With corn and soybeans, your biggest difference is whether it’s low moisture or high moisture. High moisture is going to be a lot heavier. Wheat is a smaller grain, so it packs together tighter and takes less wheat to trap somebody than corn or soybeans. When folks get trapped in canola, the bad part is, it’s so small and sticky and when it gets into your nose and mouth, it’s hard to suction out your victim to get an open airway,” Neenan said.

Neenan said although grain entrapments can vary, “fire departments are all the same. The names may change, but the characters are still the same as you go through the country. It’s nice with Grain Bin Safety Week, there are three communities that won in North Dakota, and as I’m making tracks through here, as I came down from Pembina, I came through Osnabrock, North Dakota, who won a tube, and Drayton, who also won a tube a couple of years ago. And when we were going through South Dakota, there were a couple of communities there who won tubes a couple of years ago.”

“So, it’s nice that these communities are getting the rescue equipment to help save a farmer,” Neenan added. “With Grain Bin Safety Week, this year, we’re giving away 54 tubes in 27 states, which will make it a grand total of 204 since the program started in 2014 and five of those tubes have been used in a rescue so far.”

Rugby Fire Chief Derek Bush said the fire department had other rescue equipment needed for grain bin rescues. Smaller items needed for the job included harnesses and cordless drills with brushless motors. Chief Derek Bush said that other equipment for the job “would be just a few small things” he believed the department could pay for themselves. “We do have ropes and pulleys, but there are little things we need. We have the power tools. We could have saved somebody out of a bin before this, if we had to, but this will be so much nicer. We had makeshift stuff that we had gotten over the years. You use what you got,” he said.

Bush said Rugby firefighters responded to one area grain bin entrapment call in 2020. “There was a person who was partially buried. It wasn’t a serious one. They were able to get in there and shovel the grain out that way. But as far as a submerged person, I don’t know of one in the area that we’ve had.”

“It’s nice to have this equipment, but I hope we never have to use it,” Bush added.

Keith Gault of Rugby Insurance, a former volunteer firefighter himself, said he was grateful for the specialized equipment and expert training. “At $5,000, I think we probably got it at a discount,” he said.

“An incident could come up any time. You just don’t know. We’re fortunate we haven’t had any issues, but there could be one tomorrow,” Gault said.

“I was on the fire department for almost 16 years and we talked often about getting this equipment,” Gault added.

Amanda Matehs of Rugby Insurance agreed. Her husband, Josh, is a volunteer firefighter and participated in the training. She said Rugby Insurance was glad to enter the Rugby Fire Department in the Nationwide Insurance contest.

“We know this is something the fire department could potentially use,” Matehs said. “You don’t want them to use it but you want them to have it and hope it never gets used.”

After the last group of trainees extracted their “victim,” Neenan asked Rugby firefighters to contact him if they ever have a chance to use the equipment to help him evaluate the equipment and training.

“There have been five successful rescues with the tubes that Nationwide has put out with this program,” Neenan said. “That’s five guys who get to go home that night where they possibly wouldn’t without this equipment.”

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