Agricultural Equipment Rescues


CarolinaFireJournal - Bob Twomey
Bob Twomey
01/25/2021 -

Rescue Instructors occasionally have the pleasure of teaching a class of exceptional quality and fun, the fulfillment of seeing the rescue students really “get into the class.” I experienced those feelings this past October while teaching the TR-Machinery and Agricultural Rescue certification class locally. 

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Hydraulic pressure must be relieved on a charged hydraulic system to allow this door to open.

What made the class so exciting was that all of the participants were either Firefighter II or Technical Rescuer certified rescuers, many with other rescue specialties such as High Level, Ropes, and Rigging specialty certifications. Likewise, one of the course participants is currently the chief of a local fire department and he owns a large farm here in the local area. He was able to provide old and new equipment to use in demonstrations, rescues, disentanglements, dismantling and stabilization techniques.

It should be noted that ALL fire and rescue personnel should strive to improve knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) whenever possible. The rescuers in this course were already advanced in skill levels, so this made preparing the required practical scenarios so much easier to accomplish. Their past KSAs allowed for excellent exchange of ideas and concepts about how to perform the rescues, alternative rescue methods and potential problems that could arise during an agriculture rescue. It just could not have been a more meaningful and educational class!

Modified Ladder-as-a-Derrick and Ladder Slide on grain dryer bin rescue.

Using Tyvek suit straw filled “victims,” we saw the effects of a person caught under a rotating PTO driven mower (commonly called a bush hog), a victim whose pant leg fabric got caught in a rotating power-take-off (PTO) operating at a common 540 revolutions per minute operational speed (which is nine revolutions per second), and the devastating injuries that would result to a real human being. Seeing is believing; seeing the victim hit with blades rotating at 540 RPM and seeing a person rolled up in a PTO at the same speed — well, it gets the point across that the outcome for the victim will not be good.

We had a wonderful opportunity to see what happens when a farmer tries to unclog a debris-jammed cutter head on a combine operating at field harvest speed. We saw what happens to a body when it gets tangled up in a hay “round baler” on the bale roller belts, and when a victim gets caught in a “square baler” hay baling machine. In all situations, the patient outcome was not one conducive to survival. The students were then able to begin rescue disentanglement on extremely tough, durable machinery.

Stabilization of overturned tractors is critical prior to rescue operations.

A victim caught in a corn picker, baler, combine, or other crop harvesting machine is more than likely to involve a body recovery. Many pieces of farm machinery will be under tremendous spring, mechanical or hydraulic tension when shut down or literally choked down by a human body entering the machine. To not be able to discern this type of hazard can be fatal to rescuers! Hydraulic hoses contain fluid that is under great pressure and very hot. Yet some pieces of machinery will require that this hydraulic pressure be relieved to affect a rescue, especially if the machine or tractor controls are unreachable or damaged, as in a rollover. Class participants got to see how to do this safely.

Modern farm machinery is often computer controlled, and unless complete lock-out tag-out procedures are followed, parts of a machine can re-energize unexpectedly. The risk to victims and rescuers should be obvious here. There are just so many different types of accidents that can happen with farm and heavy equipment. As such, rescue agencies with farms and farm-related activities in their districts should be certified in basic agriculture and machinery rescue. Your agency should have equipment dealers and their mechanics on a “call out as needed” emergency basis. Why? Because this type of equipment is complex, and it requires a working knowledge of how components function and interact, how they can be disassembled safely, what can and cannot (or should not) be cut, moved or messed with on a machine without proper procedure and safeguards. In a nutshell, do NOT be afraid of calling for help from folks who know farm machinery. This includes farmhands and family members or other farmers who know agricultural machinery. They may just save you or your victim’s life!

Stabilization of Farm or Heavy Machinery is Absolutely Critical Prior to ANY Rescue

Farm machinery is heavy, often top heavy, unwieldy, and sometimes bulky, with sturdy purchase points sometimes hard to reach. Many times the soil under this heavy machinery is soft, muddy and won’t provide much bearing strength. ALL of the stabilization methods learned in vehicle extrication and rescue will apply, but other stabilization techniques must be utilized, such as how to stabilize a heavy liquid-filled tractor tire to keep it from rotating. Chocking tractor tires has its own methodology, different from passenger vehicles, and it is usually done on soil surfaces instead of asphalt. Thus, agriculture and heavy machinery stabilization is a specialty area of rescue.

Rescue of victim inside a portable grain dryer. Note hot, warm and cold zones.

Grain bins, dryers and silos present unique challenges to rescuers. For example, an upright silo filled with corn silage is a confined space, a toxic atmosphere (HazMat) and will require high level rescue skills. If the victim is engulfed by product, trench rescue stabilization concepts will likely need to be utilized to prevent further victim engulfment or rescuer engulfment. Basic rescue methods from TR General, using ladders, ladder slides, ladder derricks often times work well in agriculture rescues. Grain augers used to fill grain bins present special hazards, such as when an arm or leg gets wrapped up in the vanes of the auger shaft. Can I reverse the auger to remove the victim, or do I need to cut the auger shaft? Am I going to have to hurt the victim some more if I have to reverse the auger to free a limb? Is the auger electrically driven by motor, or is it powered by a power take-off from a tractor? Can the auger be cut with a K-12 Rescue Saw or with a cutting torch? As you can see, many things need to be considered quickly in your initial “scene size-up.”

Manure management on farms with confined animals have unique risks. Many dairy, beef, and swine farms employ a manure storage pond or lagoon to temporarily hold manure, urine and facility wash water. Typically, the storage periods are for four to six months, depending on animal types, numbers, type of farming operations and so forth. These facilities are supposed to be fenced off and well managed. Generally, they are designed to be six to 12 feet deep. Most are earthen structures, with earthen dams built to contain a certain volume of waste. Lagoons tend to be deeper than waste storage ponds and typically are more “liquid” in nature. Waste storage ponds tend to “crust over” with liquid under the crust. This crust can sometimes be several feet thick before it is mechanically agitated to a slurry prior to being pumped out for use as fertilizer for crops.

Ladder Derrick-Ladder Slide used to effect rescue.

Anyone venturing out onto this crust, knowingly or unknowingly, is at great risk of falling through this crust and becoming trapped in the manure and liquid under the crust. This type of rescue normally is a body recovery. While working with NRCS in a piedmont county years ago, I actually witnessed a small child run out onto the thick crust of a dairy waste storage pond that was unmarked and not fenced off! He soon came running off the crust back onto the dam, and only by a miracle of God did he not fall through the crust layer! Since manure is undergoing biological decomposition in these structures, rescuers must be concerned about toxic gases emitted from decomposition processes, even though these are outdoor facilities. Closed facilities, such as slurry storage tanks and storage areas under animals on slatted floors, tend to be more likely to contain concentrated gases immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH).

I believe you can now understand that farms have the potential for many types of dangerous and complex rescues, from rescues in or out of silos, grain bins, waste storage facilities and a myriad of types of heavy farm machinery. Some machinery is older, some new, each with its own unique requirements for stabilization and rescue. Sometimes your standard extrication tools won’t be very effective on very tough, durable machines designed to plant, manage and harvest crops. Hazards will include toxic pesticides or herbicides, mechanically or electrically energized equipment, hot hydraulic fluids and pressurized cylinders, fuels, fire or explosions, very heavy, tough, durable machinery, rescues in wet, soft, or muddy fields, rescues during inclement weather — and the list goes on and on.

I could not possibly begin to cover all that we covered in this TR Machinery and Agricultural Rescue certification class. But I can tell you, from 47 years of rescue experience and teaching, that learning how to SAFELY perform agriculture rescues is paramount. I would encourage any rescuer to take this certification class, but will temper that statement with this: It is a “basic” specialty class in how to perform these rescues, acknowledging that more advanced agricultural rescue training will be needed. It covers a great amount of material, and it will keep you safe — if you adhere to the safety principles presented.

Bob Twomey has been in the volunteer rescue service for 46 years, having served on five Rescue Squads from the coast to the mountains. He is currently a member of Transylvania County Rescue Squad, past Chief and Training Chief, an EMT for 45 years, and is an IFSAC and OSFM certified Rescue Instructor. Bob has been active in SAR, Mountain Rescue, and teaches high-level rescue. He is the chief pilot of Wolf Tree Aviation, and flies helicopter searches and rescue support locally. He is a Crew Chief for the NC Forest Service. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or at [email protected].
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