Wis. farmers, firefighters work together on digital maps warning first responders of dangers

MILWAUKEE – Without even thinking, Joe Ortner rattles off a list of items on his family’s dairy farm that could kill you: 1,000 gallons of diesel, 500 gallons of gas, cleaning chemicals in the milking parlour, oil and lubricant for repair work and a 6-foot-deep manure pond in which you could drown.

He pauses and adds three bulls to the list.

Agriculture remains one of the nation’s most dangerous professions; accidents on farms kill hundreds and injure thousands each year. While the deadly blast at a Texas fertilizer plant last month was a sharp reminder of the risks posed by agricultural chemicals, tractors, stored grain, animals and power lines are threats, too.

To help rescuers reach people quickly and safely, a handful of Wisconsin farmers — Ortner included — have been working with researchers and firefighters on an online program that maps farm hazards. The recently completed pilot project built upon earlier work done with paper maps, and researchers at the National Farm Medicine Center hope the project can expand, with the online program eventually being used nationwide.

The concept is simple: Farmers enter information into a password-protected database. A Quick Response, or QR, code is posted on the farm’s mailbox or in another prominent location. Arriving firefighters scan the code with their smartphones or tablets and receive information about stored chemicals and other hazards, where to disconnect power and potential sources of water.

Firefighters responding to emergencies face the same risks as farmers themselves, said Jerry Minor, chief of the Pittsville Fire Department in central Wisconsin. His department has worked for decades with the nearby National Farm Medicine Center to train rural firefighters.

“We don’t have a lot of incidents on farms,” Minor said. “But when we do, they pose a real high threat to rescue personnel because of unfamiliarity with farms and all the hazards that are present.”

State law requires many industries and public places to let firefighters in for inspections, but most farms are not part of that list. The program that Minor’s department is developing with the National Farm Medicine Center helps bridge that gap.

Farm mapping projects aren’t new. An Illinois program creates paper maps of farms and places them in tubes secured to power poles. Similar projects exist in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“The downside to that is, it’s readable to anyone who comes along,” said Dr. Matt Keifer, director of the National Farm Medicine Center. “But we can secure the QR code.”

Another advantage to having the information in a database is that firefighters can access it before they reach the farm. They might scan a farm’s QR code from a manual kept in their truck, or eventually, tie the information into the dispatch system, so they receive it as soon as a call comes in, Keifer said.

Ortner, 50, is one of about a half-dozen farmers who have used the program so far. He said it would have been helpful for firefighters to have that kind of quick access to information in 1989, when the house on his 700-acre farm outside Pittsville caught fire. The line carrying power to the house burned and fell away from the building, but remained live. Firefighters had to figure out how to shut off the power before tackling the blaze.

The house was a complete loss, Ortner said, but he also knows he was lucky the fire didn’t spread to fuel barrels sitting 60 to 70 feet away.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects data for farms with 11 or more workers, says between 430 and 560 workers in crop and livestock production and support services for those industries were killed on the job each year from 2003 to 2011. But the bureau says those numbers are likely on the low end, since many farms are family-run or have only a few employees.

Bruce Wayerski, another Pittsville dairy farmer who helped test the mapping program, knows that seconds can count in saving a life. His 16-year-old nephew was overcome by gas in a grain silo on Wayerski’s brother-in-law’s farm and died before rescuers could get to him.

Wayerski, 59, listed numerous hazards on his map for firefighters, but noted that one of the things that can make their job tougher is the size of his farm. The buildings are spread out over 10 of the 800 acres where he milks 195 cows and grows crops.

“I live in a small community here, a lot of people know where my farm is,” he said. “But they don’t know where the shop is, or where the storage is for chemicals or gasoline, diesel fuel.”

Tractor rollovers have long been the leading cause of deaths on farms and many more farmworkers are caught in equipment than killed by fires or explosions, so the National Farm Medicine Center has asked some farmers to start entering their tractors and other implements into the database as well.

Minor said the tools used to extricate people from car accidents don’t work on heavier farm machinery; the fastest way to free someone can be to take the equipment apart. Keifer said he’d like to eventually see firefighters scan QR codes on tractors and other equipment and immediately receive directions for disassembly. The information could be added to the database later, but right now, anything beyond the pilot project is on hold while the federal budget is worked out.

President Barack Obama eliminated money for the centre and eight similar programs overseen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in his budget plan. It’s unclear what Congress will do, but the centres have been previously threatened with budget cuts and saw the money restored.

Wayerski said he believes the mapping program is important because it saves firefighters time.

“Especially if there’s somebody’s life involved, if you could add a few seconds here or there, that would be real helpful,” he said. “I think it’s a good program.”



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