GREENFIELD — Silver silos are a common sight in a rural community, a classic feature of the farmer’s backyard.
These staples of the country landscape are signs of years of farming traditions — but they also can be harbingers of disaster. Indiana ranks highest in the nation for grain bin accidents, with 157 reported since 1964, according to Purdue University.
Recently, more than 30 county firefighters gathered to practice the procedures that accompany grain-bin rescues. The training sessions, conducted at Circle M Family Farms in Greenfield, allowed firefighters to practice life-saving techniques using new grain-bin rescue equipment obtained with grant money from the Hancock County Firefighters Mutual Aid Association.
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Hancock County is home to one of the few grain bin technical rescue teams in the area, and its members respond to any emergency involving farm machinery or confined spaces locally or in surrounding counties. The team, which formed in 2009, is made up of firefighters from the Greenfield Fire Territory and Sugar Creek Fire Department, Greenfield Fire Chief James Roberts said.
Local farm accidents are rare — the county’s last grain-bin death dates back to the 1950s — but public safety officials say it’s important for first-responders in an agricultural community like Hancock County, with 600-plus farms, to stay up to date on rescue techniques.
The team’s expertise also is called upon for emergencies outside the county. In January, the team was called to aid rescuers in Rush County, where a longtime farmer died after being engulfed in the grain he was moving. The victim was a Hancock County native.
A grain bin rescue is one of the more dangerous scenarios firefighters encounter, officials said, as fast-moving grain acts something like quicksand, engulfing a person rapidly after one misstep.
Last year, 24 people across the country were trapped in a grain bin, and 14 of those cases resulted in fatalities, according to statistics compiled by Purdue University. That number is down from 2014, when 38 entrapments resulted in 17 deaths, but Purdue officials said those numbers could be higher because no mandatory reporting system exists.
Farmers typically become entrapped when trying to remove clumps of grain that become stuck to the sides of the bins, said Greg Smith, an instructor with the Indianapolis-based Advanced Rescue Solutions, which led a training Saturday for local firefighters.
When the blockage is removed, the shear amount of grain that shifts as a result is overpowering. The farmer becomes completely immobilized and is often crushed or suffocates, Smith said.
And it all happens quickly, meaning family members or fellow farmhands might not immediately notice a worker in distress, said Shawn Grass, another Advanced Rescue Solutions trainer.
Under the right circumstances, it only takes about four seconds for a farmer’s body to be fully swallowed by grain, Grass said.
When firefighters arrive to a grain bin rescue scene, their priority is to locate the farmer and gain access to the bin safely, Smith said. The equipment they use to save a person is essentially a tube that forms around the victim’s body, blocking the grain from encroaching any closer. Firefighters then use an auger to remove grain from around the farmer’s body so the person can be pulled to safety, he said.
Smith is a lieutenant with the Fishers Fire Department, but lives in Hancock County and volunteers with the Green Township Fire Department. He’s also a farmer, and he knows well how tricky moving grain can be.
“The best prevention is to never go into a bin alone,” he said.
Roberts said 911 calls regarding grain bin entrapments are rare in Hancock County. That makes practicing those rescue tactics even more important because it helps hone the skills firefighters don’t use every day, he said.
Greenfield firefighters are required to conduct training for one week every month. Technical maneuvers, like grain bin rescues, are always included, Roberts said.
This week, however, marked the first time the county’s smaller departments were able to train with the equipment needed in a grain bin rescue, Green Township Fire Chief Bob Holland said.
The new rescue equipment obtained by the county’s mutual aid association will be housed with the Wilkinson Volunteer Fire Department, Holland said.
Having the members of the smaller departments trained to use the equipment can be valuable asset in a rescue call, Wilkinson firefighter Jennifer Blake said. A grain bin entrapment will more likely occur in the rural areas those departments oversee. Those officers can begin the rescue efforts while the well-practiced technical team is en route, Blake said.
While rescuing a farmer or recovering a victim’s body is a priority for the firefighters who respond to a grain-bin emergency, keeping firefighters safe is also crucial, fire officials say.
“Safety starts with good training,” Roberts said.