URBANA – As a trained rescue specialist, Dave Newcomb doesn't like the odds of getting someone trapped in a grain bin out alive.
"Two out of five are successful recoveries," said the veteran Urbana fire lieutenant. "First you have to expose the person, then decide if it's a rescue or a recovery."
A firefighter for 29 years, Newcomb said he's never participated in a real-life grain-bin rescue, but through the University of Illinois' Fire Services Institute he's become an expert on the technique and teaches it to firefighters all over the state.
On Wednesday, about 20 firefighters from Urbana, Danville, and Charleston gathered in a large, hot, grain-dust-filled warehouse at Reynolds Towing in north Urbana to train with a piece of equipment new to their departments.
Four tall, interlocking pieces of hard plastic, called simply a "grain tube," are inserted around a body in a grain bin. The grain is then either vacuumed out with a shop vac or scooped out from around the person, enabling the rescuers to lift the victim out.
The relatively simple contraption costs $3,700 and was paid for by a grant from the Illinois Terrorism Task Force, which gets money from the Department of Homeland Security. Urbana has had its tube about six weeks, and is training as many of its firefighters as possible this week along with others from Normal, Charleston and Danville. Those departments also recently received the equipment.
"It's like a hard quicksand," said Scott Rieckmann, an instructor for the Safety and Technical Rescue Association from Neenah, Wis., as he stood in the corn. "In a matter of four seconds, a person can be sucked in from knees up to the waist."
The pressure of corn against a body can cause suffocation. Typically, Rieckmann and Newcomb said, accidents happen when corn doesn't flow out of a bin easily and a farmer might try to unclog it by kicking at it from on top and falling or getting sucked in.
Rieckmann acted as one of the victims for the training exercises, allowing himself to become submerged in corn up to his waist in a mobile grain bin supplied by Grain Systems Inc. based in Assumption. Teams of three firefighters then worked to free him in exercises that took about five to seven minutes.
But Newcomb stressed what they were doing Wednesday was a simulation under good circumstances.
A number of factors usually work against rescuers, he said, not the least of which is a delay in notification.
"Normally, we don't get the call until someone doesn't come home for lunch or dinner," he said.
Getting rescue workers to rural locations adds time to the effort, he said, and there are often family members trying to free the person, adding to the tension of the emergencies.
"If he's submerged, we have to go to plan B and cut the bin," Newcomb said, adding that the cuts have to be made symmetrically on either side of the bin so the grain flows out evenly. Otherwise, the bin could topple.
"We're always behind the eight-ball. Grain bin rescues on the average are four- to five-hour evolutions," said Newcomb, noting that a person trapped for a long time is likely to be dehydrated and in need of intravenous fluids and medications, making the rescue even more difficult.
Urbana Division Chief Brian Nightlinger said although grain-bin rescues usually don't happen in urban settings, his department's technical response team can respond in Champaign, Vermilion, Ford and Iroquois counties as well as anywhere they might be needed in the state.