HAZELTON TWP. — Farmers and grain handlers risk their lives every time they step into a grain bin, since they can easily sink into the grain and suffocate.
But now the Hazelton Township Fire Department has won a grain bin rescue tube that can save entrapped people, along with training for its 20 firefighters.
Hazelton Township was one of 41 fire departments across the country — and the only one from Michigan — to receive the award, part of Nationwide Insurance’s annual Grain Bin Safety advocacy campaign.
Key to winning were the large number of local residents who nominated the Hazelton Township Fire Department on social media and by email. Over 1,000 departments were nominated, Nationwide officials said.
“It’s very humbling to get the support from residents and receive such an honor,” Fire Chief Brad Cesal said. “With this gift we can provide assistance to other areas and our own area.”
Here’s how it works: The tube goes over the entrapped individual and is pushed into the grain. The tube creates a barrier between the individual and the grain, protecting them from potential suffocation due to pressure on the body.
“Being in a rural area with many farmers and grain storage, we thought a rescue tube would be an asset, and it wouldn’t have to come out of our budget,” Cesal said, adding the tool should be in service by mid-summer.
According to researchers at Purdue University, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported in the past 50 years, with a fatality rate of 62 percent.
In early 2013, it happened in Hazelton Township, when a township farmer died after getting trapped inside a pile of soybeans.
The farmer, 65, was attempting to fix a mechanical problem during an operation to offload soybeans from a grain bin on his property. The soybeans, which were hung up by the mechanical glitch, suddenly broke loose and buried the man.
A detective from the Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office said at the time that the emergency personnel who came to the scene “made a pretty valiant effort” to reach the farmer, but the soybeans were “like organic quicksand.”
The outcome might have been different if any of the responding fire departments had had a rescue tube, which costs about $2,000.
“If we save one life with it, we’ve accomplished our purpose,” Cesal said.
The Owosso Township Fire Department, believed to be the only other department in Shiawassee County with a rescue tube, got theirs a few years ago thanks to a grant from Anderson Fertilizer, which provided both a tube and training.
Owosso Township Fire Chief Dave Johnson said his department fortunately hasn’t had to deal with a grain bin accident since then, but if it happens his crew is ready.
“If we can get in quick enough and get the tube around (the victim), we’ve got a strong chance of success,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely an improvement over what we’ve tried in the past.”
Responding to grain bin accidents in past years, Johnson said his crew would cut a hole in the side of the bin and dig the grain out. However, generally that effort succeeded only in recovering a body, he said.
Nationwide Insurance created the rescue tube awards in 2014, in conjunction with Grain Bin Safety Week, an advocacy program to educate those entering grain bins on safe entry procedures and address the lack of specialized resources available to rural fire departments.
“We began our Grain Bin Safety campaign in 2014 to support the agriculture community and put an end to avoidable deaths from individuals entering grain bins without recognizing the dangers and taking precautions,” said Brad Liggett, president of Nationwide Agribusiness, in a news release.
“Thanks to the generous and increasing support of our partners, I’m extremely proud to say that we’re providing more rescue tubes and training to first responders this year than we have ever before.”
With 2020’s awards included, Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide has provided grain rescue tubes and training to 152 fire departments in 30 states.