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Grain engulfment rescue training conducted at Ellinwood facility
new vlc grain engulfment main photo
Steve Shearrer, a Great Bend Co-op Pawnee Rock elevator employee, volunteered to be the first "victim" for grain engulfment training at the Ellinwood Fire Department last Thursday afternoon, Aug. 20. Joe MacAnulla, a Great Bend elevator employee, assembled the cofferdam that surrounds Shearrer, and instructor Kevin Stansfield demonstrated the use of a hand auger used to remove grain from around the victim. - photo by VERONICA COONS Great Bend Tribune

ELLINWOOD — In 15 seconds, a person who weighs 165 pounds can be engulfed up to their waist inside a grain bin under some conditions. 

That’s the point of no-return without the help of others.  

Thursday, representatives from the Kansas Fire and Rescue Training Institute, conducted grain engulfment rescue training using the University of Kansas Grain Engulfment trailer at the Ellinwood Fire Department. They spent the day training area emergency responders and grain elevator employees how to save a life when the unthinkable happens.

With over 300 pounds of pressure surrounding a partially submerged victim, simply throwing the person a rope and pulling isn’t an option. In fact, severe injury can occur. The only safe way out is to use a coffer-dam and remove the grain from the person.  During the morning, responders and grain elevator employees from a Great Bend and Pawnee County Co-ops and Gavilon Grain of Silica attended a four hour classroom training session of elevator operations, OSHA regulations and safety procedures.  The afternoon featured live, hands-on training in lifesaving techniques that need to become automatic in just this sort of a split-second emergency.  

“We train our employees in these techniques, but when we had a chance to get training from outside, we jumped on it,” said Great Bend Coop’s Dennis Neeland.  “We hope it conveys to our employees that we care about their well being.”

Into the grain

Steve Shearrer, an employee at the Great Bend Coop Pawnee Rock elevator, volunteered to be the first ‘victim’ of the afternoon.  Donning the safety harness all co-op workers are required to wear on the occasional trips into the grain elevators, he was lowered into the miniature grain bin on the trailer.  Then, instructor Kevin Stansfield with the Great Bend Fire Department flipped a switch which opened the gate on the bin, simulating the rapid suction that traps the victim. 

Once Shearrer was submersed between waist and chest deep, he closed the gate.  In  a real life event, the vast majority of people who become completely submersed in grain are not recovered alive.

Next, Joe MacAnulla was lowered into the bin where he assembled a cofferdam piece by piece around the victim.  As he moved around, the grain, like sand, packed tighter around Shearer. 

“There is a danger the victim could become claustrophobic inside the cofferdam,” Stansfield explained, “but we don’t want it to be too big because it will take longer to extract the victim.”  

Four quarter-round sections are pounded together behind and to the sides of Shearer, with the front panel being slid into place last. Then, removal of the grain could begin, relieving that pressure little by little.  

First, MacAnulla was instructed to hand Shearer an ice scoop so he could begin to dig himself out.  This would be the most time-consuming removal method. 

“You can use anything really to scoop the grain out from around the victim,” Stansfield said.  “It takes longer, but the coffer dam buys you time.”

Next, a grain porter was used.  The long rectangular tool with a trap door on the bottom was continuously shoved into the grain and pulled out again, with each thrust filling the interior with more grain.  When it was almost full, it was awkwardly removed from inside the dam, and the grain pouted out.  Slowly, the level of grain was brought down to Shearrer’s waist.  

Finally, Stansfield asked for the porter to be exchanged for a hand auger.  Powered with a battery powered hand drill, the auger proved to be the fastest method yet.  Grain was quickly drawn up and out of the interior, until the batter wore down.  The rescue was paused while workers retrieved a freshly charged battery.  It wouldn’t be long at that point that Shearer was able to feel his feet again and begin making tiny step motions.  

MacAnulla worked sections of the dam further down, relieving more pressure from Shearrer’s lower extremities.  A step hooked onto slots at the top of each section allowed him to put his body weight to work.  He continued to remove the grain, and soon it was below Shearer’s waist, then his knees.  

Shearer was able to use his hands to move the grain around him towards the auger, but if he had been unresponsive, Stansfield said the rescuers could use a long-handled hoe to move the grain.  

Stepping became easier, and eventually Shearrer was free of the grain and was pulled out by the rope attached to his harness.  MacAnulla slowly disassembled the dam and pulled out last.  

Grim work

Chris Komarek, Ellinwood’s fire chief, said he has been called to assist with extractions from grain bins twice in his 35-year career.  Today, commercial elevators have many safety procedures in place and are subject to OSHA regulations.  But more and more independent farmers are storing their own grain, and they aren’t subject to the same rules and regulations, he said.  While some of the attendees at Monday’s demonstration were busy learning how to save a partially submerged subject, others learned what to do in the event a worker becomes completely submerged.  

More often then not, the procedure becomes a recovery, not a rescue.  Instructors demonstrated how to cut openings into the side of a grain bin, leaving a tab in order to regulate the release of grain.

“It needs to be big enough to get grain out, but also small enough a body to retrieve a body,” said Brian Welsch, and instructor from the Kansas City, Kans. Fire Department.  

Komarek said while the instances when grain engulfment occur are infrequent, its important all his men know how to respond, and where they can access needed equipment with short notice.  Often, that’s through cooperation with area co-ops, he said.  

The University of Kansas makes the trailer available for training firefighters and grain workers free of charge, thanks to donations by local co-ops.  But the waiting list is long, with six to nine month waits common, Neeland said.