Last Friday evening about two dozen firefighters and first responders were on hand for a grain bin rescue at the Enderlin Elevator, including members of the Fingal and Kathryn Fire Departments. Their victim was buried in a grain truck full of corn, only his head and arms remained visible. As seconds passed, inhaling became more difficult as the pressure on the victim's chest increased from the weight of the corn. Finally, rescue workers, after assessing the victim's condition, constructed a tube around him which allowed them to dig the man out. Once the victim was free, he was lifted from the truck to safety.
This scenario was all an exercise on grain-bin extrication, but the circumstances could have been very real. In 2011, 27 grain bin entrapments were reported in the U.S, with 19 of them fatal. In 2010, 51 grain bin entrapments were reported, a record year, with 27 fatalities, according to the North Dakota State University Extension Service. More accidents may go unreported.
That's why area fire departments and elevators are investing in grain-bin rescue equipment.
The Fingal Fire Department is one area organization that recently purchased and trained with new equipment.
Purchased with a $2,800 grant from the North Dakota Community Foundation, the rescue equipment from Outstate Data provides a solution to a very real for area firefighters and first responders, how to retrieve a person from possible tons of grain, and how to do it in time.
The rescue equipment consists of a series of lightweight, interlocking panels that, when put together, form a tube. The panels have steps on the outside to make it relatively easy to "step" them into grain piles, essentially building a barricade between the victim and the grain. Once a tube (or a half-circle if the victim is near a wall) is erected, rescuers can set about digging the victim out without fear of grain flowing back.
In the past, fire and rescue personnel used crudely made grain-bin rescue tools, some of which included plywood sheets that were used in place of the metal panels. But they were heavy and bulky, and difficult to insert in the grain, according to Craig Berg, who conducted last week's training. Also, plywood panels don't always fit into the openings of modern grain bins.
The Valley City Fire Department, which now uses a similar grain-bin rescue system, trained with a different method of bin rescue. According to Valley City Fire Chief Gary Ratterath, his fire department used a saw to cut a hole in the side of a grain bin, allowing the grain to flow out. But they had to be very careful where and at what angle the hole was, or the victim, as well as the rescuers could be in even more danger. Rescue panels make it safer for the victim and the rescuers.
The Valley City Fire Department hasn't had to make a grain-bin rescue yet, but now Ratterath feels secure in the organization's ability to do so safely.
"This is more of a controlled method," said Ratterath, who lost a nephew in a grain-bin entrapment accident more than thirty years ago.
At about $2,000, the rescue equipment may sound expensive, but with the growing amount of grain storage in agricultural areas, the pros outweigh the costs.
Fingal Fire Chief Mike Koller wrote a grant to pay for his department's equipment, as he has for much of the department's equipment. Also, some elevators, like the one in Enderlin, have begun paying for the equipment.