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Time is difference between rescue and recovery

Make call to 911, shut off equipment are first steps to successful bin entrapment rescue.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

August 15, 2023

5 Min Read
Close-up of an unloading auger moving grain from a bin
SHUT OFF THE FLOW: Moving grain from a bin should not be a life-threatening chore, and a farmer should never enter a bin when an unloading auger is running. Shut off the unloading auger before entering a bin, and if someone becomes trapped in flowing grain, shut off the auger and call for help.Kevin Schulz

Time can be the difference between living and dying when someone becomes trapped in a grain bin.

“It’s human nature to want to try to help” someone who has become trapped in a grain bin, says Jack Volz, risk manager with Parthenon Agency and president of Safety and Security Consultation Specialists LLC (SASCS) based at Minnesota Lake, Minn.

Rather than entering a bin in an attempt to save someone who is trapped, Volz says that helper may actually make matters worse by causing more grain to flow in around the trapped victim.

Instead, Volz says it is important to make sure that all equipment — especially the unloading auger — is shut off. A 911 call for emergency personnel, people trained in grain bin rescues, should also be placed to get help on the way.

Preaching safety around and in grain bins has become a passion for Volz after he, as part of the Minnesota Lake Fire Department, responded to a mutual aid call to the site of a bin entrapment in 1994.

“We lost a close family friend that day,” Volz says.

According to Volz, there were six single entrapments in the state last year, with two fatalities. All of these occurred during a period of six to seven weeks. Traditionally, June and July are the hot months for grain entrapment occurrences.

Volz feels the actual number of entrapments may be higher than reported numbers. “I think we only hear about maybe 25% of the entrapments that happen in the state of Minnesota,” he says. “And 75% of them, somebody else was able to get them out without calling 911.”

He may have retired from the fire department at the end of 2022 after 30 years of service, but he continues to work with fire departments and farm cooperatives to train firefighters, grain handlers and farmers on safety measures.

Resist temptation to help

After first calling 911, Volz reiterates the importance of resisting the urge to enter a bin to help a trapped victim.

In addition to shutting off all equipment, Volz says it is important that all breakers are clearly labeled. “When firefighters arrive, how are they going to know what switches control the equipment?” he says. In some situations, turning the bin fans on may help the breathing environment for the trapped person as well as for the rescue workers.

Volz encourages farmers not to work alone when they know grain handling is on the docket. “If you farm alone, get a guy from the coffee shop, a retired farmer, call a neighbor,” he says. “Break down the pride, ask for help.”

Reiterating that time is crucial to keep a rescue from becoming a recovery, Volz says “I tell fire and rescue squads that when they go to a grain bin entrapment, that they should call Gibbon right away.”

Call Gibbon

Volz refers to the Gibbon, Minn., fire department that added a Rural Rescue Response Trailer to their fleet in March 2023.

Nate Firle, a member of the Gibbon Fire and Rescue, says the R3, as the trailer is called, was born out of a successful grain entrapment rescue that occurred on an area farm in 2019.

“He [the farmer] was in quite a predicament, where he was trapped in the flighting of the auger and entrapped in grain up past his shoulders,” Firle says. “We had to move a lot of grain, and we needed to do it relatively quick.”

A fast-acting fire captain, Jason Rettig, called a farmer friend near the site who owned a grain vac, “and that grain vac was key in working right around the victim,” Firle says. “That sped up the process, easily by 35 to 40 minutes.”

The trapped farmer was “lucky” in that his pants had become entangled in the auger, “and got balled up enough in the auger that it tripped the breaker, shutting off the power,” Firle says. “He didn’t have a cut on his foot or anything.”

Not all farmers are as lucky, as Firle says there were 12 entrapments in Minnesota in 2019, and this Gibbon farmer was the only one able to tell about it. Three of these entrapments involved silo gases and not grain bins.

Rehashing the incident got the Gibbon firefighters and rescue squad members (all volunteer department members are dually trained) thinking about what they could have done different, what did they need to be better?

“We thought a grain vac would be a big help, but how would we do that?” Firle says. First thought was to compile a list of farmers with grain vacs who could be called upon in an emergency. That went nowhere.


Firle then set out to design just what the department members felt was needed, and the result is the R3, a 16-foot-long, custom-built trailer equipped with a 35-horsepower, self-powered grain vac capable of handling up to 1,000 bushels per hour.

Firle, Rettig and fellow firefighters Andrea Wortz and James Theis formed the committee to oversee the trailer’s development, partnering with Christianson Systems of Blomkest, Minn., and Alum-Line of Cresco, Iowa.

Even though the R3 benefits the community and beyond, Firle says the department members did not want to burden taxpayers with the cost of the rig. Fundraising began in February 2022. “We sought donations from ag-related and local businesses,” he says. In three months, $75,000 was raised, enough “to trigger ordering the trailer in July 2022,” he adds.

As mentioned, this unit is custom-built, and Firle says as of yet it is one of a kind. That may soon change as word of Gibbon’s R3 has spread; Firle says five departments in Minnesota and neighboring states are near placing orders.

In addition to the grain vac, the department members also felt it necessary that the trailer have space to transport tools and equipment for a rural rescue. “I would say most rural fire departments have grain rescue tubes, but when I visit their departments, the tubes are leaning up against the wall, because there’s no room for them on the truck,” Firle says.

The trailer is pulled behind a department grass rig, speeding up response time.

Again stressing the importance of time, Volz recommends fire departments call Gibbon soon after receiving the initial call. “By the time the local department and rescue squad gets to the scene and gets everything set up for the rescue, the Gibbon trailer could be well on their way, if not already on the scene.”

More information on the R3 can be found on YouTube under the Gibbon Fire and Rescue channel, or by calling 320-979-4835.

Volz may be reached at [email protected] or visit the SASCS Facebook page or the SASCS website.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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