Oklahoma State University’s mobile Grain Bin Entrapment and Confined Space Training Unit, dubbed “the Unit,” at GEAPS Exchange 2024 in Kansas City, MO. Photos courtesy of GEAPS.

March 23, 2009 is a date that the small community of Hydro, OK will never forget. Fire Chief Nolan Schmidt lost his life and four of his volunteer fire department were sent to the hospital after entering a grain bin containing out-of-condition soybeans. Many of the members of the department were related; three of the five injured firefighters shared the last name of Schmidt, and others had grown up together in this small, rural western Oklahoma community.

The death of Chief Schmidt hit the community like only such a loss can do. Mutual aid came from all of Oklahoma, and news made it to all corners of the state and beyond. It was apparent that, for such a strong grain production state, Oklahoma needed both grain bin safety and awareness training and rescue procedure education.

When Fire Service Training (FST) at Oklahoma State University (OSU), Oklahoma’s land grant university, learned of the Hydro tragedy a mere minutes after the incident occurred, planning started.

Bringing together representatives from FST, OSU’s Biosystems and Ag Engineering Department, CareerTech (Oklahoma’s vocational and technical schools), the Enid, OK Fire Department, Triangle Insurance, the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, and the Oklahoma Grain and Feed Association, brainstorming and resource acquisition began to develop training for the grain handling and production industry in Oklahoma.

“The Unit” Hits the Road

Fast forward 15 years, OSU’s Grain Bin Entrapment and Confined Space Training Unit (“the Unit”) most recently provided five demonstration/training sessions at the 2024 GEAPS Exchange in Kansas City, MO in partnership with GEAPS and the Kansas City Fire Department.

The Unit consists of a semi-trailer that has two “bins” connected by augers, equipment for safety and rescue training, and at least 150 years of experience within the instructor team. At Exchange, each demonstration session gave Kansas City firefighters the opportunity to be a victim and rescuers in a demonstration entrapment scenario. GEAPS provided closed-circuit video so that attendees could see the simulated rescue from the Expo Hall floor.

The Unit and the instructor team spend many hours every month traveling around Oklahoma and other states teaching the ag community how to safely enter grain structures, monitor air quality, properly use lockout/tagout equipment, effectively use bin entry permits, and support and rescue victims in grain bin emergencies including entrapment/engulfment.

Funding for the Unit and equipment comes from several firefighter assistance grants. The curriculum development and classes are funded by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Susan Harwood grants.

Eight Years and Counting

The success of the OSU Training Unit can be attributed to partnership building within Oklahoma around an obvious need in the state. Communication and continuous improvement have kept the Unit progressing and serving as many people as possible for the past eight-plus years. Farmers, elevator personnel, fire departments/rescue units, and youth groups go through the eight-hour training that includes some classroom work reinforced by hands-on experiences in the trailer.

Confined space information is critical in the training, addressing air quality monitoring (knowledge lacked in Hydro when Chief Schmidt lost his life), and the need to follow confined space protocols. Grain quality education is included.

Steps to stabilize and successfully extract a victim are covered with students serving as the victim and rescuers. Hands-on experience in lockout/tagout is discussed and reinforced with students. The training demonstrates the equipment required to keep grain workers and rescue teams safe.


Members of the Kansas City Fire Department perform a mock grain entrapment rescue atop the Unit.

Recognizing that the grain environment is very unique, even within the area of permit-required confined space practices, the instruction team wants everyone to get the feeling of what it is like to work in the unsure footing and unique environment of a grain bin.

While the demonstration trailer is not geometrically and environmentally identical to each real-life incident, the steps for prevention and rescue are the same. The training prompts long and rich discussion of the facilities in the area of the training and the experiences and available equipment of the students attending the training.

While nothing fixes the tragedy that the community and families of Hydro experienced in March of 2009, something very good came from the bitter awareness that Oklahoma needed to react to a long-overdue need in the grain production community.

Sharing the trailer and instructors through demonstrations at events such as GEAPS Exchange helps to spread the need for training and hopefully gives other states ideas of how their states can satisfy training needs. There are many ways to provide this kind of training, but all have the same overall goal: to save lives in the grain industry both in commercial facilities and on family farms.

For more information about Oklahoma State University’s Grain Entrapment Rescue and Confined Space Unit, contact Dr. Carol Jones at jcarol@okstate.edu.

Dr. Carol Jones, Ph.D., PE, is a professor emeritus and ombuds officer at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, and president and lead engineer of CL Jones Consulting, LLC.