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Firefighters and farmers tackle safety together

When firefighters and farmers work together, they can all be better prepared in case of an emergency.

Farmers aren’t known for their tendency to easily place their trust in others. A 2015 study by the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH), a collaboration of five research and healthcare institutions, found they are most likely to trust each other and family the most, but another group with a very high rating was firefighters.

This discovery hit home for Casper Bendixsen, director of the National Farm Medicine Center, a UMASH partner. “We were looking for a way to bring information about health and safety practices to the agricultural community in a culturally appropriate way,” he says. Bendixsen, who was raised on an Idaho ranch and also served as a firefighter during college, says, “I hadn’t thought of that even though I had been a firefighter.”

Thanks to a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, UMASH launched the Rural Firefighters Delivering Agricultural Safety and Health (RF-DASH) project, founded by Bendixsen, in 2016. It provides farm safety tools and training allowing rural firefighters to work with farmers and ranchers to improve their own safety practices.

Ag Emergencies 101

People who work in agriculture are seven to eight times more likely to die on the job. Dangers abound at home, too, with two to three children killed on U.S. farms every week, according to ag safety researchers.

Simply sharing these numbers with farmers isn’t enough. Firefighters in the program may not have a farm background, so it’s important for them to understand the dangers, too.

“Fifteen years ago, a lot of farmers were in the fire department, but now there are fewer farms and fewer rural firefighters,“ Bendixsen says. “We have a new generation of firefighters that could use ‘Farm 101.’”

Farm accidents are low-frequency and high risk, he explains, which means they don’t happen often enough for rescuers to get a lot of experience with them, but when they do happen, they’re often really serious.

Make a map

Bendixsen says part of the program is planning for a potential emergency. Every farm is different, and firefighters on their way to a farm emergency have no idea what they will find unless the farmer has previously communicated with them.

One of the best ways farmers do that is to invite the local fire department to their farm and allow them to map their property. “Web-based mobile technology like Farm MAPPER (nfmcFarmMapper.com) lets firefighters plan a response en route to the incident,” Bendixsen says.

It uses a satellite image of the farm and lets farmers or firefighters add icons so it’s easy to see the location of hazards, access points, water sources, fuel storage, electric fences, hazardous chemicals, livestock, and other items that could play into a rescue scenario. Farmers can use this technology even if their local fire department is not part of RF-DASH.

Assess the risk

Personnel trained in RF-DASH can also provide risk assessments specific to farms and equipment. A free web tool called Safer Farm (SaferFarm.org) helps farmers take a look at their operation and identify potential hazards.

Firefighters can work through the process with farmers, providing them with a report of items that could cause injuries. “It’s not OSHA or an insurance agent telling them to make changes,” Bendixsen says. “It’s just evidence-based friendly advice from a firefighter.”

Farm first aid is different

It may take several minutes or longer for responders to get to a rural accident. That’s why RF-DASH trains farmers in first aid specific to common farm injuries. “If you have to wait 15 minutes for help to arrive, you don’t want to just sit there,” Bendixsen says. “You need a plan.”

While training the farmers, firefighters discuss preventive strategies. For example, when teaching how to respond to a tractor rollover accident, the firefighter will encourage the farmer to equip tractors with rollover protection structures (ROPS).

The future of RF-DASH

Bendixsen has received many requests for training in other states. “We have done some expanded training but can’t get to them all because we’re not fully funded yet,” he says. The goal for the next five years is to attain funding to build a national network of farm hazard analysts in rural fire departments. He would also like to develop a website that would allow firefighters to talk with each other and ensure all training conforms to National Fire Protection Association standards.

Until then, Bendixsen encourages farmers to take their safety into their own hands. “Farmers don’t need RF-DASH to build a better relationship with their local fire department,” he says. “Invite the fire department to your farm, let them walk around, and get to know each other.”

He also urges those who are able to volunteer to become firefighters. “The more farmers we have on the fire department, the better off we will be,” he says. “These are two populations that I really care about, and they would do well to care about each other.”

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