sealPurdue News

December 1998

Farmers help themselves by helping first responders

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Farmers may view their spread as a piece of heaven, but emergency personnel may view it as a dangerous environment full of fatal traps. The result is that the two groups often don't work together as well as they should, even though they may be friends and neighbors.

Fred Whitford, coordinator of the Purdue University Pesticide Program, said: "I do seminars where we bring together farmers and rural firefighters, and the differences between the two groups is striking. On one side of the room, the firefighters think the situation's all doom and gloom. On the other side, the farmers think that it's no big deal."

For example, Whitford said, the abundance of chemicals stored on a modern farm makes some firefighters wary. "Farmers should realize that even though the materials they use are relatively safe, firemen are extremely concerned about the mixture of all of the chemicals and the fumes being released in the smoke," Whitford said. "Their concern is justified, because we don't have any research that shows that those fumes aren't dangerous. It is potentially an extremely hazardous situation to their health."

Bill Field, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of Purdue's Agricultural Safety and Health Program, said emergency personnel can be hurt on the farm if they don't realize the dangers: "In this state we've had sheriff deputies, emergency medical technicians and other first responders go into a hog building where someone had been overcome by toxic fumes, not realizing the danger, and they die, too. We've had silo fires where firefighters spray water on them and the whole thing blows up. We've had sheriff deputies and rescue personnel chased by bulls."

Field emphasized, though, that this lack of understanding isn't one-sided -- too many farm families don't know what to do in an emergency, either. "There was a study in Nebraska that looked at how people who had suffered paralyzing spinal cord injuries had been transported to the hospital," he said. "The most common method had been in a pickup truck. This obviously contributed to the injury."

Field said farm families need basic first aid training. "Ninety percent of the time, the first person to respond is the wife," he said. "At the least, each farm wife should know the ABCs of first aid -- how to maintain an airway, breathing and circulation -- and who to call for help."

Whitford and Field said that emergency personnel and farmers often work well together once they begin talking to one another.

"Once you talk to them, the firefighters may decide they want to come to your farm to see how and where the chemicals are stored," Whitford said. "Take advantage of their willingness to come to your farm. The more they know about your farm, the quicker they'll be able to respond."

Whitford said farmers don't have to act alone in preparing for emergencies -- in fact, it may be best to act in conjunction with other farmers. One way a community of farmers can help prepare for emergencies, he said, is by conducting mock disaster exercises on the farm.

"Mock disaster exercises could include grain entrapment, tractor rollover, pesticide poisoning, a practice burn or an environmental release," Whitford said. "This not only allows fire departments to practice, but it forces everyone in the system to prepare their resources. So a fire department has to secure the scene, and the police and the emergency medical services have to interact. It forces people to uncover their mistakes or lack or training or communication."

Whitford suggested having someone videotape the mock exercise to help the participants uncover their mistakes and critique their performance. "It also helps to have a question-and-answer time at the end to allow firefighters to ask questions about what they've seen on the farm," Whitford said.

Sources: Fred Whitford, (765) 494-1284;

William Field, (765) 494-1191;;

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; e-mail,;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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