Wisconsin emergency responders hone skills for farm rescues

Dan Hansen
Correspondent
Fire crews simulate rescuing a person trapped under a tractor that’s rolled over.

Marshfield, Wis. –  Firefighters and EMS personnel regularly train to meet the challenges involved in responding to residential fires and motor vehicle crashes. 

However, they often encounter new and more difficult challenges when responding to accidents on Wisconsin farms.

“I grew up on a farm, and the equipment now is much larger,” said Pittsville Fire Chief Jerry Minor, who’s spent 43 years in the fire service. “We had a two-row corn picker, now they have 12-row combines.”

Minor noted that farm equipment also is built much stronger than what firefighters are normally used to in dealing with motor vehicle accidents.

“When we have people trapped in cars we can usually pry the car apart,” he said. “The equipment we use for that doesn’t always work the same way on farm equipment. So we often end up actually taking the machine apart to get people out rather than tearing it apart like we would do on a car.”

Farm rescue training

Recognizing the need for firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other rescue personnel to supplement basic emergency training, led Minor to help organize the recent Agricultural Rescue Training Scene Management program at Heiman Holsteins and Heeg Farms, Inc., just outside Marshfield.

The two-day rescue education program, organized by the National Farm Medicine Center of Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in partnership with Pittsville Fire and Life Link 3 Air Medical Transport, presented hands-on rescue scenarios involving tractor overturns, grain bins, equipment extrication and more. It drew more than 70 participants from 29 departments across Wisconsin.

Rescuers train to free a person trapped in a car following a collision with farm machinery.

“Rescue operations on farms tend to be low frequency/high risk, meaning that they may not happen as often as car wrecks but, when they do happen, they’re often very severe because of the nature of the occupational environment on farms,” said Casper Bendixsen, director of the National Farm Medicine Center. “It’s something that you have to train for because you don’t have a lot of practice with it in daily rescues.”

Minor’s involvement with National Farm Medicine Center goes back to the 1980s when the center was started.

“There was no training out there specifically for farm accidents, and the biggest issue, which is still an issue today, is bringing fire and EMS personnel onto a farm who aren’t familiar with farm operations and farm equipment,” he said.

Training sessions were held annually for about 20 years, but not since the early 2000s. Minor saw a clear need to revive the trainings, as many of the original students are now retiring from the mostly-volunteer fire services of Wisconsin, and fewer new firefighters bring farm backgrounds.

Program support

The training program’s revival was made possible thanks to $53,000 pledged during the Fund-a-Need portion of the September 2019 Auction of Champions held at RiverEdge Golf Course, Marshfield. In addition, numerous local businesses and individuals provided equipment and/or support at very little or no cost. 

The Life Link helicopter is ready to transport an injured person to the hospital.

Minor extended a special thank-you to the Central Wood Fire and Rescue Services Association member departments who provided instructional staff, tools, equipment and expertise.

Fire departments that sent three or more personnel to the training received a free, four-gas monitor courtesy of the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund. The fund honors the memory of Mike Biadasz, 29, of Amherst, who died in August 2016 when he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas on his family’s beef cattle farm.

The following departments will be receiving the monitors: Arpin Fire Dept.; Edgar Volunteer Fire Dept.; Grand Rapids Fire Dept.; Harrison Fire Rescue; Hewitt Area Fire Dept.; Iola Fire Dept.; Lincoln Fire Dept.; Oconto Falls Fire Dept.; Richfield Rural Fire Dept.; South Area Fire District; Stratford Area Fire Dept.; and Wisconsin Large Animal Rescue.

Organizers plan to offer the training annually for the next four years, according to Kyle Koshalek, research coordinator with the National Farm Medicine Center. Future trainings will be fine-tuned based on feedback from the first training.

For more information, contact Koshalek (koshalek.kyle@marshfieldresearch.org, 715-389-3786) or go to http://agrescue.org/ 

Preventing farm accidents

Minor’s fire company in Pittsville is somewhat unique because it’s a not-for-profit private corporation, along with a few others in Wood County.

“We have full-time staff, paid on-call staff, medical staff and fully volunteer staff. The reason we’re set up that way is because that’s what works for us,” he explained.

The department covers 300 square miles of fire and EMS jurisdiction most of which is in Wood County but also extends into Clark County.

Minor says his department stresses farm safety.

“Our firefighters go out to farms and deliver safety programs to farm owners  and employees. Anything on the farm that we feel is a danger to them is also a danger to us. We want to help famers make their farms safe from fires and equipment accidents,” he said.

A ladder truck may be needed to help free someone from a silo.

“We try to identify the hazards before there’s an incident. We have confined spaces, farm chemicals and places where people can get trapped. We want to prevent fires from happening, we want to prevent the accidents from happening. We try to reduce the hazards by changing or eliminating things; updating electrical systems is often a big issue,” he emphasized.

Training with other departments also is important, according to Minor. 

“We go out with our partners all the time, because we all have staffing issues. We depend on our neighbors to help us, and they depend on us to help them, which has become a part of our day-to-day operation. The only way to successfully handle these types of rescues is with a lot of people," he said. 

Minor says a A grain bin rescue is not something that three people can do.

“That may take several hours and dozens of people. We need to have not just one department trained in ag rescues but we need them all trained because sooner or later they’re coming to either one of our calls or we’re going to one of their calls out on the farm,” he said.

One of the best ways to prevent farm fires and farm accidents is for farmers to get to know their fire department.

“Invite them out to your farm to help make your farm safer,” said Minor. “They, in turn, should invite you to their station. Learn about each other’s problems, and how we can help each other. The time to do that is before an incident occurs.”