Farm emergency calls create unexpected challenges for rural responders

Thursday, May 31, 2012
Merrill Fire Chief Bill Merchant, advising local farmers on the need for awareness of potential farm fire and personal injury situations, says rural fires and emergency response can at times present certain challenges for firefighters and rescue workers.(Sentinel photo by Jolene Stevens)

During his 18 years as a member of the community fire department, Merrill Fire Chief Bill Merchant has found himself and his department responding to a variety of calls.

Not all responses are within the city limits.

A number of the calls he and the department's current 22 volunteer members respond to are in the rural area and nearby farms.

Such fire calls can involve fire fighting problems all their own, Merchant said.

In some instances these problem situations arise even before fire fighters begin tackling a burning house, adjacent farm buildings or farm fields, he said.

"Possibly one of the biggest challenges we face in rural fires is one not often considered," Merchant said. "A lot of today's farms have very long lanes into the farms, making it tough to get in and set up at a fire scene on farm property."

That's only part of the challenge, he said.

"Keep in mind, if you will, a fire department such as ours is bringing in its own water to fight the fire," Merchant said. "Getting the units to the fire scene can be difficult with a single-lane driveway when you're planning placement of fire trucks and determining what you need and don't need."

The Merrill Fire Department responds to rural fires bringing generally 3,800 gallons of water on two tankers.

"As available water is needed, it's then called in," Merchant said. "It's different from fighting an in-town fire where you have only to pull up and plug into an available hydrant for the water you need."

Timing for fighting a fire can be a crucial factor in any fire-fighting situation, and farm fires are no exception, he added.

These calls can require fire fighters to place large "swimming pool like" plastic drop tanks at the scene to fight the fire with water transferred from the tankers to the tanks, he said.

In some instances, such as large barn fires, up to four of such tanks may be needed.

Merchant encourages farm property owners to take into consideration the space necessary for a fire response set up and to evaluate their farm lanes and entryways. He said they should consider the access needed for fire vehicles to reach a fire site and adequate space to set up to fight the fire and turn around upon arrival.

Merchant said limited entry space can also slow down response to grass and field fires. These make up the "main number" of rural calls for his department especially in dry weather conditions, he said.

"Here again, just getting to where we need to be can be our greatest problem, especially if there are a lot of fences to negotiate through," he pointed out.

Other farm fire fighting obstacles, especially in western Plymouth County, are of natural origin such as a hilly terrain, Merchant said.

Additional structural sites and debris areas also can become obstacles.

Merchant suggested if someone is starting a trash fire in a field or elsewhere, they should continue to monitor the fire.

"This can save the property owner, and us as firefighters, a lot of trouble," he reiterated. "Starting the fire and then running into town for coffee isn't a good idea in such cases. It's a matter of paying attention to the fire."

Merchant commends farmers for their own rapid assistance to assisting his department when reports of a farm fire come forth.

"When there's a grass fire, farm neighbors are always there with discs and tractors seeing to it we have plenty of help," he said. "They're always ready to lend us a hand and do whatever they can do."

At the same time the fire chief said his department has seen somewhat of "a decline" in farm fire calls within the past few years, despite the increase in the size of farms within the area.

He attributes this to today's modern farm equipment and easier upkeep of the equipment as well as to more farmer awareness of potential on-farm fire hazards.

The latter, he said, is due to educational efforts of various organizations and farm equipment manufacturers.

"It can help out a lot with regard to field or grass fires when equipment is kept properly cleaned and greased properly. Overheated bearings and dirty equipment can cause a lot of fires," he added.

Merchant also asks that people digging or plowing in an unfamiliar area of farm property first contact Iowa One Call (811) to determine if underground facilities may be located on the property.

Such awareness can help prevent incidents similar to the recent explosion and fire recently occurring near Hinton, he added.

Merchant also advises farmers and farmland property owners to be aware of other precautions important in eliminating calls relating to possible farm-related injuries.

He cautions against working alone in closed farm buildings or near lagoons where the potential exists for dangerous fumes, in filled grain or silo structures, or in livestock confinement barns where hogs or cattle as well as chemicals may represent a danger if working alone.

Merchant said care should be taken as well when operating machinery in the field or farm lot to make certain necessary equipment safety guards are always in place.

This also means avoiding "putting your hands where they don't belong" when working with farm equipment, especially when in a hurry, he said.

Often the rush to get things done can easily set the stage for potential serious or life-threatening injuries, Merchant added.

Considering the mutual aid fire department's role in responding to farm calls, Merchant says he's grateful to the response of volunteers to join the local department, including a mix of those from Le Mars and other adjacent areas and from numerous professions.

"We've been fortunate that we've had quite a few of these individuals just walk into the office and volunteer to be department members because they want to serve their community," Merchant said.

The community has likewise shown continuous support for its local fire service through numerous donations, he said.

One such donation came last year from Plymouth Energy ethanol plant near Merrill. It was a grain rescue tube and a newer equipment trailer in event of plant emergency needs.

Merchant said the community overall offers cooperation with the fire department.

That cooperation, he said, enables his department to continue to successfully serve the community as fire and rescue responders in town or in rural areas.

NFPA says farm structure fires costly

The National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Lorraine Carli, says data shows the cost of fire damage to farm structures can be considerable. Data from the organization's research division for 2006-2010 puts the annual averages as shown here.

Carli said a total of 1,800 fires with $74 million in property damage were reported in terms of structure fires reported to local U.S. fire departments on "properties with barn-like classifications"

This figure includes 830 livestock and poultry storage units resulting in $28 million damage, 250 crop or orchard-related fires with a damage figure of $8 million and a total of 720 livestock production structures indicating a damage figure of $38 million.