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Cheryl Skjolaas uses "Rescue Randy" to demonstrate safe ways to rescue victims engulfed in grain, which can behave like quicksand. One rescue involves building a dam of plywood around the victim and then using a vacuum to remove excess grain. Jeff Nelson (behind Skjolaas) also led demonstrations that day.

On a pleasant evening in August, some 40 firefighters and emergency medical technicians converged at the Nehls Brothers Dairy in Juneau, Wisconsin. But it wasn’t an accident that created the commotion. For that, you can thank Cheryl Skjolaas.

A farm safety specialist at the UW – Madison Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, Skjolaas knows all too well the multitude of dangers that exist on the state’s farms. Each year in Wisconsin, around 30 people die in farm-related accidents, with causes ranging from tractor rollovers to inhalation of toxic gases inside silos. But Skjolaas says few first responders have experience with modern farms and farm equipment, complicating rescue efforts and costing valuable time.

To compensate, Skjolaas began offering workshops on farm rescue training to firefighters around the state. Her first attempt, in 2007, was little more than a Powerpoint presentation, but now the workshops have evolved into orchestrated, hands-on exercises that teach participants how to respond to farm accidents without putting their own lives in jeopardy. At the Nehls farm, for instance, CALS machinery expert Jeff Nelson, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter, demonstrated how to deploy rescue equipment on heavy-duty farm equipment.

“We’re used to grabbing the Jaws of Life and chopping off the door (of a wrecked car) or using what we call the spreaders and just pulling the door right off,” says Nelson. “But because of the strength of the metal (on tractors), that’s not possible. You’ve got to disassemble more. You’ve got to bend more than cut.”

With requests for farm rescue trainings on the rise, Skjolaas is gearing up to start offering annual workshops in each region of the state so that representatives from all of the state’s fire departments can afford to attend.

“We train regularly on ladders, on driving the fire truck, and on farm accidents so we will be ready for when we need that one skill,” says Juneau Fire Chief Curtis Ninmann, who attended the exercise at the Nehls farm. “You never know what’s going to happen.”