Inside a garage at a building near the Purdue University Airport sits a dump truck, full to the brim with dried corn. It’s not a grain bin, but it’s a useful stand-in for an exercise first responders from around the area are about to stage.
The EMTs, volunteer firefighters and other lifesavers have come to Purdue to learn from perhaps the world’s pre-eminent experts on grain bin entrapments.
“For years, we had people climb to the top of the bin and they’d look in the bin and if they couldn’t see a family member or they couldn’t see them, they would just automatically say ‘well, they’re deceased.’ And we just didn’t really give them a chance. And we really didn’t know,” says instructor Steve Wettschurack.
The logo on Wettschurack’s shirt actually says “Grain Bin Rescue Instructor”. He’s held dozens of these classes around the country this summer.
“There are so many myths out there that if you went below the surface of the grain and you’re in to your chin and your chest is covered, you’re immediately as a fatality and that’s not the case. We’ve got people coming out of grain bins that’s been in the grain, below the surface of the grain, four and six hours,” he says.
So Wettschurack gathers his charges outside the garage and shows them how to assemble several types of tubes which can be placed around an entrapment victim to keep grain from pressing down on their chest. These come in many forms, from interlocking yellow plastic pieces to this four-piece metal cylinder with heavy-duty locks on all four sides.
The group splits into two sections, with some entering the back of the semi to try their hand at freeing one of their fellow participants from the corn, which sucks people in up to their knees as soon as they set foot in the back of the truck…
Outside, Steve Wettschurack is teaching firefighters, now decked out in full response gear, how to cut the appropriate type of ventilation hole in a grain bin.
The firefighters then grab the nearest reciprocating saw and begin slicing V-shapes in a piece of corrugated sheet metal meant to approximate the side of a bin.
It appear training like this is working, says Purdue grad student Salah Issa, who’s been crunching numbers on more than a thousand grain bin entrapments nationwide.
“Basically 70-percent of all entrapments result into deaths," Issa says. "That’s according to our statistics. However, recently, I would say we’re seeing more cases of survival as we’re doing these classes. And I would say in the last couple years, maybe about 40-percent would be fatal.”
Issa is working for professor Bill Field, who’s studied entrapments at Purdue for the better part of four decades. He says grain bins could be made safer, but there have historically been several economic factors in the way.
“There are safer ways to design grain bins, but the issue is that over 300,000 farms in this country already have grain storage on them. And historically the value of grain has been relatively low," Field says. "So you’re storing a very low value product and you couldn’t afford very expensive storage facilities to store that product.”
And the economics hampers local first responders, too. As he pours corn kernels from his boots, volunteer firefighter Richard Lofland says it’s unlikely his department in rural Tippecanoe County could afford the life-saving tubes he’s just learned to use.
“I mean, that’s a quarter of our budget to buy one," he says. "You know, we have to pay for [electricity] and stuff first.”
But Lofland says that doesn’t mean his department won’t eventually need such tools.
“We’ve had grain bin accidents before. A farmer caught in the auger – or was injured by the auger – but there was really no grain involved at that time. But my thought is it’s probably a matter of time before we’ll have something.”