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Train for the grain

Mahoning Valley rescue personnel stay prepared for next emergency

NORTH LIMA — They say that a cup of Folgers coffee is the best part of waking up, but an empty can of the famous brand could be the best part of saving someone’s life.

“This training just gives us another tool in our pocket. Chances are, this call is coming eventually,” Beaver Township fire Chief Larry Sauerwein warned.

He was referring to emergencies in which farmers and others get trapped in grain bins, a relatively rare situation. Nevertheless, they are common enough to justify the need for a few dozen firefighters to have received specialized classroom and hands-on experience in such rescues, during a training session Saturday at the Beaver Township Fire Department, 601 W. South Range Road.

Township firefighters, along with those from Coitsville, Springfield Township and New Waterford, practiced using rescue equipment such as a coffee can, thin probes, suction tubes, rope, an auger and a Cofferdam, which is a series of metal panels that can be enclosed around victims for added support to free them from being stuck in grain.

During one group simulation, Sauerwein played the victim, in which he was half buried in about 8 feet of corn in a metal bin and unable to get himself out. Others in the group carefully and delicately surrounded him with the Cofferdam so as not to risk injuring his legs. Then the coffee can was used to scoop grain from the enclosed space before a metal pipe was inserted across the panels to give Sauerwein an additional way to hoist himself up — something he attempted periodically during the earlier part of the simulation.

Overseeing the demonstration was Jim O’Connor, a field training officer with the Ohio Fire Academy of Reynoldsburg, which offers nearly 200 courses, including more than 70 for firefighters, fire inspectors and officer development, according to its website.

“Fortunately, these are not common, but not as uncommon as we’d like it to be,” he told participants while explaining a series of important steps in performing such rescues.

A vital first move is to test air quality in a bin, because grain can emit dangerous dust and, if several conditions are right, explode. Next, it’s important to see how alert a victim is and ascertain how many people are trapped. While getting the proper equipment in place, it’s also critical to communicate continually with a rescuer on the ground about the situation and what’s needed, O’Connor said.

Even after a victim has been freed, however, the operation is not necessarily over, because grain removed from the enclosed area can quickly flow back to where it had been displaced. The rapid movement also could trap rescuers in the bin, O’Connor warned.

“We’ve got to think about that when bringing our people out, too,” he said, noting that rescues also are tailored to take into account a victim’s age and physical condition.

“This is not something fire departments work with on a regular basis,” added Andy Bauer of the Ohio Fire Academy.

Falling through a layer of grain crusted with mold but looks deceptively safe, getting caught in a fast flow as an auger is running, and cleaning grain that quickly falls from the sides of a bin into a suction pattern before the person can get out of harm’s way are the three most common ways people become trapped, Bauer explained.

“It feels like a blood pressure cuff that is around your whole body,” he said in describing being trapped in grain products.

While such calls are not common, about 60 percent result in fatalities, largely because victims enter bins by themselves, lose their balance and succumb to the weight and pressure of the grain before suffocating, Bauer said. He added that three or four such deaths occurred last year in Ohio.

“I hope what they learn today, they never have to use,” he continued.

Sauerwein said he hopes more departments can learn the specialized training to be in a better position to offer mutual aid as in other rescues. In addition, the chief recalled a farmer in the area who was trapped on two occasions in his grain bin.

He also thanked Dan Zippay of Beloit-based Custom Agri Systems Inc. for donating the rescue tubes.

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