FFA chapters help keep first responders safe

By Rachel Schrage
FFA Public Relations Intern

Long days. Difficult conditions. Pressure to make the right decisions. And it doesn’t end there—among their many other similarities, farming and firefighting have long been considered two of the most stressful and dangerous jobs in America.

According to the United States Fire Administration, in 2010, Pennsylvania ranked fourth among states with the most firefighter deaths in the line of duty. The state’s FFA members are working to ensure that no firefighters are killed or injured when responding to farm emergencies.

Started in 2007 in cooperation with Pennsylvania State University’s College of Agricultural Science, the FFA Farm SAFE (Saving Area Farms Effectively) program maps potential hazards for first responders. The maps give a precise location for chemicals used in farming and potential explosives, along with power shut-off switches and water supplies. After data is collected and detailed maps have been created, they are placed in black tubes and strapped to a telephone pole near the farm’s entrance so that first responders can find them easily in the event of an emergency.

“Many of the pesticides and herbicides used in farming pose very real health and environmental threats in a situation like a fire,” said Daniel Mark, an environmental chemist at Pace Analytical. “When released in large quantities, they can be toxic to humans and animals and contaminate large tracts of land or the ground water supply. Not to mention the additional danger of the gasoline used in farm machinery that is extremely volatile and explosive.”

First responders are not the only party to benefit from the maps. In the event of a farm fire or other emergency, knowing the exact location of grain bins, farm machinery and livestock can reduce property damage, saving farmers time and money that may otherwise be lost.

The program is beginning to catch the attention of other states, whose universities and government agencies are implementing similar farm mapping initiatives. While Pennsylvania has abandoned the program at the state level, 32 high school FFA chapters have been trained to use the global positioning systems and geographic information systems necessary to produce the maps. So far, about 50 maps have been created.

Moving forward, the hope is that all farms will someday have a hazard assessment map available, which will prevent injuries and save lives. According to those in the environmental industry, it is very important that first responders on the scene at an emergency know the hazards with which they will be faced.