News & Media

Grain engulfment 2015 - case study

By: Duncan Russell

Category: Operational Information

  6.04 PM 3 June, 2015

Location: General

Views: 3134

The ‘Learning from incidents’ section of Brigade magazine includes case studies of major incidents researched by Fire & Emergency Management. Here, the team analyses a grain engulfment in 2015.

A case study is an explanatory story based on a real-life incident that looks at what happened and why it happened. The aim is for people to learn from the case study so they improve their decision making in time-critical situations.

If you have any observations or initiatives you would like to submit from your own experiences in emergency management, visit the Observation Sharing Centre:

Incident overview

On 10 February 2015, a local farmer became engulfed by grain in a silo on his Axe Creek property. The silo was about a third full, containing approximately 10 tonnes of barley, and the farmer was trapped up to his chest. CFA got the call to respond after people on the farm had worked tirelessly for two hours to free the farmer. It was a warm afternoon and temperatures inside the silo had reached 50 degrees celsius.

The initial call responded Axe Creek and Bendigo brigades, including a ladder platform, for a confined space rescue. The responding officer also requested SES and Oscar 1 Emergency Response Brigade to assist.Oscar 1 is a CFA specialist mines rescue brigade based in Bendigo.

En route the senior station officer (SSO) conducted an initial assessment of the resources available and considered the options to conduct the rescue operation. Although the SSO was a confined space rescue technician, he didn’t have any formal grain engulfment training. However, he was aware of a number of techniques he could use to rescue the farmer because of lessons learned from previous grain engulfment incidents. He had also carried out his own research into engulfment rescue techniques.

When crews arrived at the scene, it was decided the control of the incident would remain with the Axe Creek brigade lieutenant and the SSO would perform the role of technical rescue sector commander.

An incident emergency management team was formed during the incident which included Victoria Police, SES, Ambulance Victoria and CFA. Worksafe also attended the incident but, after the incident, raised concerns about its ability to investigate the incident while it was occurring. The initial size-up identified that the efforts of the farmer’s colleagues had made some inroads to free him. The farmer’s colleagues had used a makeshift harness and built a coffer dam around the trapped man and

had released some grain from around his chest. Coffer dams are used to shield a victim from further grain engulfment and allow the grain to be removed so the victim can be released.

During the rescue, attempts were made to limit the amount of movement in and on the silo, because any vibration would cause grain to further engulf the farmer. Using the ladder platform, crews accessed the inside of the silo to continue to work on the trapped farmer. Ambulance Victoria officers monitored the farmer’s condition remotely from the cage of the ladder platform, and the Bendigo confined space rescue operators, along with the Oscar 1 members, continued the initial plan to free the man using the existing coffer dam arrangement.

All the equipment used inside the silo had to be safe, so there was no threat of a spark that could cause a dust explosion. The extreme temperatures meant that crews working inside the silo had to be rotated to avoid heat stress.

While rescue efforts were being made internally, SES prepared a number of redundancies. A secondary roping system was set up to help with the internal rescue if it was required. In addition, a fallback plan was prepared to release the grain from below if an urgent evacuation was thought necessary. This process has the potential to cause a dust explosion and may cause more harm to the victim, so an uncontrolled release of grain would have been a last resort.

During the rescue, crews were able to communicate with the trapped farmer and continue to remove the grain from around his body. He was released after being trapped for almost four hours. He climbed the internal ladder to the ladder platform before receiving medical treatment. Crews working inside the silo were also checked by Ambulance Victoria for heat-related illness because of the extreme conditions they worked in.

After-action reviews were conducted within CFA and at a multi-agency regional level to learn from this incident and to continue to build strong relationships across the agencies involved.

Lessons identified

Pre-planning for a potential event The members who responded as part of the Bendigo crew had done some mental pre-planning for this type of incident. This pre-planning can be invaluable, particularly if a team reviews the processes that should be considered and thinks about the available options in this situation.

Training and cooperation Increased awareness of the capabilities of SES, Oscar 1 and CFA technical rescue has led to a more collaborative approach when responding to technical rescue incidents. Greater understanding of the various techniques, equipment and procedures will lead to better outcomes for the community. A review has begun of the computer-aided dispatch tables to make sure the correct vehicles are sent to a technical response.

Understanding the risks The agencies and individuals involved in this incident were aware of the dangers of grain engulfment and had varying levels of understanding of the procedures for dealing with this type of incident. A number of agency commanders had previously attended engulfment rescues or had researched risk mitigation for grain engulfment.

Role of Worksafe At emergency incidents Worksafe inspectors may attend to provide support, investigate an industrial accident or review safety management. Crews on scene should give all reasonable assistance to inspectors so they can carry out their duties, which may include providing an escort or a guide while the incident isn’t under control. Where an inspector’s safety could be at risk because of the nature or status of the incident, or if diverting emergency personnel to help the inspector would jeopardise the welfare of any victims, the inspector should be advised and access restricted until the matters are resolved.

Working in extreme conditions Crews performing the rescue were exposed to extreme temperatures and humidity. To limit heat illness, a large number of crews was needed and rotated regularly. A rehabilitation unit was available in the area but, because it’s a fairly new resource, it was overlooked during the rescue.

Silo awareness for the farming sector Given the time it took to notify emergency services, the farmers may not have fully understood the risks. Thankfully this incident had a successful outcome as the farmer was released, but there have been similar incidents where victims have died either by working inside a loaded silo or entering a silo to rescue a colleague. Engulfment, oxygen depletion, excessive heat and combustibility are significant risks for farmers working inside silos. These incidents can turn into disasters very quickly and the farming community needs to be more aware of the dangers.


In 2007, a farmer tragically lost his life during a grain engulfment in Hamilton. This incident was the catalyst for a number of initiatives to better equip our members with the skills and knowledge to deal with silo entrapments.

• In April 2015, two CFA officers attended a train the trainer course on rescue techniques for grain engulfment, conducted by Kansas Fire and Rescue Training Institute and Purdue University in Fargo, North Dakota. This will establish CFA as a leader in grain engulfment rescue training in Australia and will no doubt save lives in the future.

• CFA is currently developing technical rescue resources to deploy to complex incidents such as grain engulfment.

• Local initiatives and expertise mean we can train members to deal with incidents. Through increased knowledge, equipment design and multi-agency exercising, we can limit the impact of these emergencies on our communities.

Photos: Courtesy of Brendan McCarthy, Bendigo Advertiser

Last Updated: 08 April 2016