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Local fire companies working to protect farms 

By BETSY J. KREGER - Farm, Field and Garden Correspondent

Somerset — Farming is more than just an occupation; it is a way of life. Many farmers are born on the farm. They learn about machinery and animal husbandry at the knees of their parents or even grandparents. Farming runs in the blood and fills up all areas of life.

Because agriculture seeps into every bit of life for a farmer, an accident or a fire can be debilitating.

The New Centerville and Rural Volunteer Fire Company has decided to take action against fire and other common hazards around the farm once and for all by bringing in experts from Penn State University for six days filled with training and instruction on managing agricultural emergencies.

Throughout the months of January and February, New Centerville, Listie and Sipesville fire companies have teamed together to learn about various methods of containing fires, mapping out techniques for evacuating farm animals and rescuing victims involved in farm-related accidents.

Although New Centerville has had a farm rescue team in place since the 1980s, the company took advantage of a grant Penn State University received through the Department of Homeland Security that would allow them to receive training free of charge. As a result, the courses have been updated to include information on biosecurity and agricultural terrorism.

"It is important to constantly train because farms are constantly changing, and we continue to try to train new members and purchase new equipment," explained Andrew Walker, New Centerville's rescue captain. "Even the best rescue equipment doesn't do much good if firefighters are not accustomed to using it."

The agriculture emergency management course is broken into two separate courses: agricultural emergency awareness and emergency rescue in an agricultural environment.

On Jan. 28-29, the fire companies participated in the agriculture emergency awareness course. The course challenged firefighters to think differently about farm related emergencies than they might for residential or other commercial property fires.

As Penn State instructor Brenda Coe explained, "When you enter a burning building and you are forced to choose between saving 10 or 15 head of cattle or a large piece of machinery, you need to decide which is of greater value to a farmer. If the farmer paid $100,000+ for a piece of equipment, it might be more important to him to get that out first."

With new value ideas in mind, the group traveled to the Edward O'Brien dairy farm on Pioneer Road, Somerset to participate in a preplanning exercise. The group split in half to create a general overview of the farm: where the major buildings were located, where electrical boxes are positioned, which buildings housed chemicals and machinery, etc.

As they mapped out the farm, program director and course instructor Davis Hill challenged the firefighters to recognize the hazards and challenges that might occur in different areas. For example, if someone would happen to be injured and trapped within a bulk milk tank, how might rescue teams free them without doing major damage to the tank?

"Knowing what emergency you might be facing and thinking about how you will react to it can save time and lives," said Brenda Coe. "That is why we encourage fire companies to focus on preplanning for emergency situations on local farms."

Another training session was held at the New Centerville and Rural Volunteer Fire Station on Feb. 11-12. This session focused on preparing fire and EMS crews to deal with emergency rescues in an agricultural environment. Specifically, crews faced scenarios involving farm machinery and equipment accidents.

Despite snowy conditions, the company managed to open up space in their engine room to hold all of the necessary rescue equipment and training situations. New Centerville volunteer firemen Mark Walker, Nathan Tressler and Craig Waltermire brought machinery from their home farms for the crews to practice rescue techniques. In the various scenarios, the teams had to work to free mannequins from beneath tractor tires and from the grips of PTO shafts.

The crews worked diligently, using every method available to them to free the practice victims from the equipment.

According to course coordinator Davis Hill, training exercises such as these have paid off for many fire companies in the past.

"I taught this course in Lancaster not too long ago. One day, I got a phone call from them, saying they had to rescue a man who had gotten caught in a PTO shaft. He told me, 'It was just like the exercise. You gave us a PTO, you showed us what to do, and we remembered it, and the guy's life was saved.' It's moments like that, that make this [training] worth while," said Hill.

For New Centerville and Rural Volunteer Fire Company, agricultural emergency training is even more personal.

"Many of our members grew up on or near farms, and farming remains an important part of our community, so we feel a special sense of obligation to try to be as ready as possible because the next emergency could be a family member or a neighbor," said Andrew Walker.

On Feb. 25-26, Penn State instructors will return to New Centerville, and, weather permitting, they will instruct firefighters in handling tractor overturns, confined space rescues and management of farm chemicals.

Although no one ever wishes for an accident to occur on the family farm, it is a comfort to know that local fire companies are invested in ensuring safety and precision in agricultural emergency situations.

Copyright © 2013, Daily American

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