According David W. Smith, a farm safety programs specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension, more than half of the victims of fatal farm accidents are first responders. He made his comments during a training program for emergency responders at the Stiles Farm Foundation in Thrall, where farmers showed and told the emergency workers why answering a call on a farm is unlike any other call they are likely to receive. Smith said the two most dangerous places on a farm for a first responder are grain bins, or silos, and manure pits, Smith said. In both cases, gases that can form in response to the storage of grain and/or manure are stealthy and deadly when something goes wrong.
"First responders are very susceptible to these kinds of accidents because a lot of times they don't know there's a problem until it's too late," he said.
The information and advice came free at this training, which was sponsored by the Williamson County, Travis County and Texas Farm Bureaus along the research and extension arms of Texas AgriLife Extension, the Texas Forest Service and others. Farmers familiarized the first responders with farm machinery, demonstrating how to turn the machines on an off, what kinds of fuel and chemicals they carry and where the tanks are located.
Farmer Al Howe suggested the emergency workers get detail sheets from the manufacturers on the farm machinery is use in their area and details on what kind of chemicals will be in use during any given time of the year.
"Find out what farmers are doing seasonally," he said. "That way when you are called out into the field, you will have some familiarity with what you might be facing, but don't assume anything."
In addition to a wide range of farm machines, some of them quite large, emergency responders also find themselves confronting animals, and some of them are also quite large. Traffic accidents involving vehicles carrying livestock present a unique set of circumstances for emergency responders. Dustin Coufal, agriculture extension agent in Williamson County, said never to release cattle from trailer until a containment area has been established.
"The livestock will be stressed," he said. "At this point they will rely on instinct. Their first priority will be to get to safety. Sometimes in a fire they think the safest place is a barn. The think of it as their safety zone, even if it's about to burn.
"If you're trying to move livestock, try to find the lead animal and get it going. The others will follow. With cows, the mamas will protect their calves and the bull will protect the herd. You don't want to get in their way. You can't outrun them and you can't outmaneuver themHorses will come right at you."
Last year, much of the response to rural areas came in response to wildfires, which plagued Texas never before and which is already a problem in parts of the state this year. Winter and early spring rains brought forth a lot of winter weeds and forage, which is now dying and drying out, taking much of the landscape with it. Most of West Texas is extremely dry because the rains never came.
"It (fire danger) could be worse than last year," Bob Avant, president of the Williamson County Farm Bureau said. "The rains came this winter and created a lot of brush. Now the rain has cut off in April, and a lot of us could be in a worse situation than we were last year."
Lexi Maxwell, a Wildland and Urban Interface Specialist with the Texas Forest Service said she is glad to see emergency responders learning the lay of the rural landscape and the importance of the decisions they have to make.
"Taking out a gate is better than taking out a fence," she said. "Look for an opening if it exists. If you have to cut a fence to get to the situation, notify the chain of command that you've cut the fence because once livestock is out, all bets are off. You or a motorist might hit a horse or a cow, especially with a fire where there's a lot of some and visibility isn't good."
Ron Moellenberg, director of EMS and emergency services in northeast Travis County, said that the number of calls to farms and ranches has gone down but he is not sure if it's because more of the county has become urbanized or if new safety technologies and aggressive educational campaigns have had an effect, or both.
"The technology has improved so much, and I think people are generally more aware of these issues than they used to be, but it only takes a slip in judgment for a situation to go from zero to 90 miles per hour in no time," he said.