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Thousands of agricultural spraying, loading and fueling operations are carried out each season without incident, but when accidents occur, fire-rescue personnel may encounter hazardous chemicals contaminating equipment, protective clothing and themselves.
Agricultural production in America has progressed greatly in the past century. In 1910, one farmer fed seven Americans; today, one farmer feeds 143 Americans. This increase can be attributed to improved hybrids, crop rotation, improved tilling methods and the application of pesticides to control pests that damage crops.
Pesticides include a broad range of chemicals used to control everything from insects and rodents to weeds, fungus and worms. Chemicals can also be sprayed on crops such as sunflowers to hasten the drying process for harvest. Dry application of pesticides is limited to crops like rice and other specialized situations. Ninety-five percent of all pesticide application is done through spraying.
The primary method used to apply pesticides to crops is aerial spraying. The aircraft vary from helicopters and biplanes to specially designed, fixed-wing craft. There are several manufacturers of fixed-wing aircraft, including Air Tractor and Thrush, the primary manufacturers of turbine aircraft, in which the engines are inside the shell of the aircraft. Turbine engines use Jet A, a kerosene-type fuel, and Jet B, a naphtha-type fuel that enhances cold-weather performance. Cessna and Piper manufacture agricultural spray aircraft, mostly with piston engines that use gasoline for fuel. Piston aircraft are characterized by the engine being located on the outside of the aircraft. Ag-Cat is the primary manufacturer of biplanes. These aircraft may have turbine or piston engines.
Anytime aircraft operate as crop sprayers, there is the possibility of accidents in the air, on the ground and in fixed storage. Accidents may occur during fueling of aircraft, mixing or storing of pesticides, or loading of pesticides on aircraft. These aircraft fly low to put maximum product on crops while avoiding pesticide drift. They face the hazards of power lines, trees and other natural barriers and aircraft failure.
Much spraying is done early or late in the day when wind is light. These are, however, times when the sun is low to the horizon and may cause visibility problems for pilots. Accidents may also occur at fixed bases when pesticides are mixed or loaded onto aircraft or during fueling. While not common, fires can occur where pesticides are stored. The decision whether to fight the fire or let it burn should be made after consulting the environmental protection organization with jurisdiction for the area.
While many pesticides used today are far safer than those used in the past, and few are life threatening, caution must be exercised until the product is identified and while working in contaminated areas. (One exception is Lorsban, a very toxic organophosphate pesticide.)
Pesticides encountered at accident scenes are likely to be granular or diluted with water. Regardless of the form, emergency responders must take precautions before beginning any operations. Not only could there be chemical contamination of the aircraft, pilot and immediate area, but the area sprayed may also be contaminated. Emergency personnel may have to pass through a treated area to reach the pilot. Even though chemical activity of many pesticides is short term when applied, response personnel may not have this information. Often, a pilot who knows a crash is imminent will try to dump the aircraft’s entire load of pesticide at once, spreading more contamination over the area.
Pilots of aerial spraying aircraft usually do not have radio contact with emergency dispatch centers and cannot in most instances talk to them on cockpit radios. Radios used by the aerial applicators are usually tied to operations bases that may or may not be manned at any given time. Around large metropolitan areas, pilots may have radio contact with air traffic control, but that is not the case in most rural areas. Many pilots carry cell phones, but otherwise have no way to communicate with emergency responders from the cockpit.