The Olds Fire Department is one of the latest rural fire departments in Alberta to receive a donation of life-saving grain entrapment rescue equipment.
Awarded by the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association (CASA) and Corteva Agriscience, the equipment consists of a grain rescue tube and auger that help to create a barrier around — and then extract — a grain entrapment victim.
While these incidents aren't common, Justin Andrew, the fire chief and director of protective services for the Town of Olds, told CBC News that when they do occur, they are often dangerous and deadly.
Central Alberta has a lot of grain movement — which makes it a hazard that is always present for rural communities, he said.
"For emergency responders, we don't see this kind of incident every day. But when we do get called to it there's a high degree of risk involved as rescuers, and high consequence for the victims," Andrew said.
"And those are the types of calls that as firefighters, we dread."
According to a CASA report published in 2020, there were 30 agriculture-related asphyxiation fatalities from 2006 to 2015 due to grain or silage.
That figure made up 83 per cent of asphyxiation fatalities during that time period, with 14 per cent of fatalities attributed to soil while three per cent were unspecified.
Grain entrapments can include a victim falling into the grain box of a truck or railcar, or a grain bin on a farm, and Andrew said the threat can be immediate.
The grain seeks to fill all void spaces like a fluid, and when flowing through an auger or chute, it can create a funnel that pulls someone down — almost like quicksand, Andrew said — and smothers them.
"As a person is trying to breathe or struggles to get out, they can actually become entrapped further," Andrew said.
"It can restrict their breathing, and it can become a suffocation hazard very quickly."
The most recent incident that Andrew can recall was in October 2015.
Catie Bott, 13, and 11-year-old twins Dara and Jana Bott were buried and smothered by canola seed at a family farm near Withrow, Alta., RCMP said at the time.
They had been on the back of a grain truck when they became trapped and suffocated.
"In 2015, we saw a spike in grain entrapment fatalities, and there was some really close-hitting cases in Alberta and Saskatchewan, unfortunately," said Rob Gobeil, an agricultural health and safety specialist with CASA.
"And we recognized … there's a need for prevention before something happens. But when and if something happens, we recognized the need for grain rescue training as well with the fire departments."
The cofferdam and the auger
A grain safety program called BeGrainSafe was eventually designed by industry organizations, CASA, and later, the federal government.
It included a mobile BeGrainSafe unit that began travelling across Canada in 2015 to raise awareness and provide training.
By 2018, CASA teamed up with corporate partners to purchase and distribute grain and rescue gear to some fire departments across the prairies and Ontario.
The Olds firefighters participated in the summer of 2019, and learned to extract grain entrapment victims using a cofferdam and auger.
Designed with individual metal panels that interlock together and form a circle around the victim, the cofferdam creates an effective barrier against the grain, Andrew said.
The drill-operated auger, which has guards in place so that it won't catch fingers or feet, then drains the grain and allows the victim to be extracted.
"[The equipment] allows us to isolate the victim from the pile of grain, and then it gives them an anchor source, so there's handles on the inside that they can hang on to," Andrew said.
"[And] it allows us to block out that flow of the grain and then remove it immediately around the victim — and then extract them safely."
In February, CASA and Corteva donated the gear to the Olds Fire Department, which is located less than an hour from places in Alberta that could need it most, Andrew said.
"The geographic location where we would probably be seen to have the greatest effect would be within 45 minutes in a circle around us," he said.
"[CASA and Corteva] donated the equipment in its entirety … [and it] will be kept in a station, and it will be kept in an equipment cache that would be readily accessible to be loaded onto the back of a pickup truck, and then responded to wherever it's required."
'The number one thing is preparedness'
The firefighter grain rescue training program is currently available in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario, but Gobeil said CASA is considering it further east, if it can find a cost-effective means of doing so.
Nationally, Gobeil estimates there have been over 600 trainees and around 40 sessions for firefighters in Canada.
To date, 280 Alberta firefighters have been through the program, and CASA says equipment has been delivered to communities including Red Deer County, Taber and Ponoka.
In 2021, the training will be provided across Alberta in Camrose County, Wetaskiwin, Magrath and Cypress County.
According to Andrew, the program and equipment will allow the department to be proactive in responding to grain entrapment incidents.
"The number one thing is preparedness … and having the training behind us in a preemptive setting is far better than in a reactive setting, where we wish we would have had the equipment, or we wish we would have been trained," he said.
"I would love nothing more than to see more of these devices spread throughout the province."