At about 3:30 Thursday afternoon, the 911 call went in to the Barton County dispatcher from the Great Bend Co-op elevator – an employee was mired in golden quick sand-like grain inside a massive bin.
The day was warm and a southerly wind whipped up clouds of grain dust and sand that pelted the imperiled employee’s co-workers as they tethered themselves with a rope and climbed into the cavernous metal structure. Inside it was pitch black, save their flashlights and a sprinkling of light leaking through the small hatch at the bottom.
In a matter of minutes, elements of the Great Bend Fire Department arrived, including firefighters, emergency medical technicians and members of the department’s elite Technical Rescue Team. A few minutes later, the “victim” was hoisted out, strapped to a backboard. The crew whisked him to the ambulance which transported him to an awaiting Lifeteam helicopter from Hutchinson that landed in an empty lot on the west side of Main Street.
Thankfully, this was only a training exercise, the capstone of a three-day course sponsored by Great Bend Co-op. “This was a real-time event,” said Joel Zehr, a firefighter and paramedic from Newton and lead instructor with Industrial Safety Operations out of Norwich. He conducts training all over the United States.
Other topics included extracting someone trapped in a grain trailer, falls, auger accidents, first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
“The idea is to get rescuers and employees together so they can see what each other does,” Zehr said. In addition to co-op workers from all seven of the companies branches, three GBFD firefighters took part.
The rescue drill Thursday afternoon was a final exam, of sorts. “We want to see how all the training pulls together,” Zehr said.
ISO came to Great Bend to work with the co-op’s personnel and emergency responders at the behest of the co-op’s management. “If we can save one life, it is worth it,” said Great Bend Co-op’s Dennis Neeland.
The training was called “Grain Elevator Emergency Response” and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires such facilities to have records activity. Neeland said they conduct it every few years.
Despite the fact it was only a drill, there were plenty of spectators. “You wouldn’t believe how many calls I’ve gotten asking what’s going on,” Neeland said.
Watching as the fire trucks and ambulances arrived, and as emergency personnel handled the organized chaos of the scene was Great Bend Fire Chief Mike Napolitano. “This helps us know what each others capabilities are,” he said.
Through such cooperative efforts, the fire departments what equipment and expertise the co-op has and visa versa, he said. This will apply to other elevators as well.
The Technical Rescue Team members were there in their off-duty hours for the training. They are also part of Kansas Task Force 5, a regional response effort born of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The region also includes fire departments from Hutchinson, Newton, Sedgwick County, Winfield and Wichita.