It is not often that emergency personnel are called to rural farm settings, nor do first responders have the necessary knowledge of agricultural operations or what they may be up against in a worst-case scenario. But one thing is certain: most farm accidents are serious, and can involve multiple casualties. Even a moderate-size dairy or pork farm can present significant challenges to emergency crews. For starters, the types of hazards can be very different and quite complex; response times are longer, creating logistical nightmares; even the physical structures themselves can be hazardous due to their age and types of construction materials. Other challenges include the severity of the accidents, availability of water sources, potentially toxic environments, limited resources, language barriers, and a general lack of preparedness at the farm.
So, how can emergency crews prepare themselves to co-ordinate an effective response to serious farm accidents or disasters? More importantly, how can relationships between farm owners and local first responders be fostered to enhance emergency services?
Understanding the day-to-day operations and circumstances unique to the agricultural sector is absolutely vital. This includes knowledge of equipment, layout of buildings, number of workers on location, and, of course, the types of hazards specific to the operation. Pre-planning is also helpful; a site map and safety plan are useful in any emergency situation. And, a good way to adequately prepare both the farm and local first responders? Organize emergency drills or exercises: these practices will go a long way in facilitating an effective response and earning the respect of the farmers.
Considering that the safety of responders is always the No. 1 priority, a thorough knowledge of and appreciation for the hazards at a typical farm is important. For example, many large operations have hazardous or confined spaces, which may not be labeled as such. Knowledge of these high-risk areas can prepare first responders in case unique tactical strategies have to be deployed. Hazardous environments could include oxygen deficiency, fire, explosion, or toxicity. Gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and/or methane can also be present. For responders, this means careful planning, monitoring equipment, and full turn-out gear.
The very nature of the accidents or scope of the disaster in an agricultural setting can pose significant problems and further complicate a response. Education about the types of injuries will further prepare emergency personnel in these situations. Tractor rollovers can result in fatal crush injuries or entrapment; machine entanglements will also require special extrication procedures – a lot of extra work that will use up precious time.
Other types of accidents may involve engulfment and subsequent suffocation in silos or grain bins, drowning or near drowning in manure pits, electrocution, falls from heights, and toxic exposure. Additionally, just to make things even more interesting, the accident may involve more than one victim. Adequate training in this area will help responders prepare physically and mentally for these scenarios.
Other challenges can be just as problematic. In most cases, farms have limited resources. First responders therefore must ensure they are adequately equipped for just about any type of incident, and local services can assist farmers with a list of suitable tools or equipment for emergencies, most of which the average farmer will likely have on hand: pry bars, hydraulic jacks, support timbers, or pumps can and should be readily available.
Language barriers may also present unanticipated problems. Many farm workers are seasonal employees, immigrants trying to make a new start. For them, English is a second language, and they may have difficulty communicating, especially in an emergency situation.
By far, the most critical component for emergency-response services is the ability to build relationships. A liaison with local farm owners and employees will provide great learning opportunities for all parties. An excellent way to accomplish this is to conduct emergency exercises or drills in an agricultural setting. By actively participating in the exercise, the farm owner and employees will have a deeper appreciation for the work emergency responders do; and the responders will improve their skill sets. More importantly, the information sharing will go a long way in fostering a culture of safety at the farm by demonstrating the importance of accident prevention. During the debrief, discussion should focus on what went well and what areas need improvement.
Building and improving relationships will have positive results. Knowing and understanding agricultural operations and their unique hazards can save lives. Anticipating the challenges of limited resources and potential language or communication difficulties is essential. And practise, practise, practise; the tried and true method of emergency preparedness. A little bit of this, a little bit of that goes a long way!
Mike Burzek is the director of public protection and safety for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. He has more than 20 years of experience in emergency response and public safety, including nine years as a paramedic. He teaches courses, including fire suppression, emergency management and confined-space rescue. He lives in Dawson Creek, B.C., and can be reached at
Industry Outlook: May 2012
Don’t forget the farm; first-response in agriculture
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