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Quick Response codes to help first responders

This Internet screen shot depicts a typical farm hazard layout as charted by FarmMAPPER (Farm Mapping to Assist, Protect and Prepare Emergency Responders) software.

Members of the Pittsville, Wis., Fire Department scan a Quick Response code from a rural mailbox in a test of the FarmMAPPER (Farm Mapping to Assist, Protect and Prepare Emergency Responders) system.

By Larry Dreiling

Imagine your farm shop on fire.

The shop is loaded with chemicals, solvents, fuels, electric sources and perhaps a gas shut-off valve.

It’s not just a raging inferno, it’s a hazardous materials handling team’s worst nightmare.

How to tackle this beast?

The scenario is not too far-fetched.

Imagine a dairyman thinking about all the things on his farm that could kill you.

The list includes 1,000 gallons of diesel, 500 gallons of gas, cleaning chemicals in the milking parlor, oil and lubricant for repair work and a 6-foot-deep manure pond in which you could drown.

Oh, and add three bulls to the list.

Where should a rural firefighter begin to save lives and property?

Imagine a loved one suffering from a heart attack at your farmstead.

Perhaps the farmstead is actually one of three homes where you and the families of two younger family members are living nearby.

The houses are near identical matches and the description of the home to dispatchers has been frantic. Which house should local EMS enter to get quick care to someone whose heart is in arrest?

These could be nightmare scenarios for many emergency responders. Fortunately, it appears that a new form of help is on the way.

A feasibility study by the National Farm Medicine Center located at Wisconsin’s Marshfield Clinic is now underway to explore the use of Quick Response tags (QR codes) to provide responders onsite information about hazards and the physical layouts of agricultural operations. Marshfield Clinic has been renowned for more than 50 years of research into rural and agricultural health and safety issues.

The concept is called FarmMAPPER, short for Farm Mapping to Assist, Protect and Prepare Emergency Responders, according to Scott Heiberger, rural health communications specialist.

The concept is simple: Farmers enter information into a password-protected database. A QR code is posted on the farm’s mailbox or in another prominent location. Arriving firefighters scan the code with their smartphones or tablets and receive information about stored chemicals and other hazards, where to disconnect power and potential sources of water.

The study will develop model systems for farmers to input data such as locations of hazards, where power and gas cut-off valves and water sources are and where farming operations occur.

These data will be linked to QR tags attached to easily accessible sites (such as mailboxes or telephone poles near access roads), where emergency responders may read them. First responders in the test phase will offer comments as to the best locations to place the QR codes.

“What our approach is that a first responder will use a smartphone, or probably something like an iPad, which is larger, and approach the mailbox or phone pole or wherever they see a QR near the entrance to a farm or ranch,” Heiberger said.

“They’ll read that QR code, and it will lead to a securitized website where the farm information is stored.”

The security will be built into the website so no one but the farmer, rancher, or whoever on site is authorized to do it can update his situation and only qualified EMS personnel can open the website to read the information.

“We think an iPad or something similar might be better to use since the responders will probably like having the option of using larger type faces to read in stressful situations,” Heiberger said.

Another big reason for the use of a QR code will be to permit emergency responders to avoid injury from explosions, chemicals, electrical or other on farm hazards.

“This is important, as we want to make sure the responders truly know what they may be stepping into if, say, a shop caught on fire following an explosion. You want to make sure both parties are safe,” Heiberger said.

NFMC already has one willing group, the nearby Pittsville, Wis., Fire Department, to test the usability of the FarmMAPPER system by first responders.

Tests began in early February, as the Marshfield Clinic Biomedical Informatics Research Center group went into the final stages of development of the secure online system for farm data storage and the QR linking method. The Computer Usability Laboratory at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation is testing and working to improve the functionality of the data collection interface.

“This project is one of a suite of projects designed to apply QR tags to great advantage in rural and agricultural health and safety settings,” Heiberger said. “One idea we have is for QR codes located where there are Material Safety Data Sheets. Many people hardly give binders of MSDSs a second thought, so we could have them all together on a QR code, perhaps an employee could read it in their spare time at home.

“You might even want to hang a QR code for a safety manual in your dairy barn. Since many employees in dairying now are Spanish speakers, have the code come forward in a Spanish text. There’s a lot of different ideas to try in the next few months.”

FarmMAPPER is being seen not only as a benefit to farmers, but to firefighters as well, since emergency responders face the same risks as farmers themselves, said Jerry Minor, chief of the Pittsville Fire Department. His department has worked for decades with the nearby National Farm Medicine Center to train rural firefighters.

“We don’t have a lot of incidents on farms,” Minor said. “But when we do, they pose a real high threat to rescue personnel because of unfamiliarity with farms and all the hazards that are present.”

Wisconsin state law is similar to that of many states in that it requires many industries and public places to let firefighters in for inspections, but most farms are not part of that list.

As this proof of concept project is completed and once funding from other sources is obtained, the NFMC plans to explore the capability and willingness of farmers to list their larger equipment and perhaps place QR codes on them to show responders proper rescue procedures for that equipment.

NFMC officials then plan to develop a controlled trial on FarmMAPPER that will compare the efficacy of two or three methods for recruiting farmer participation in farm map preparation and will improve on the tools developed by the pilot project.

“Our plan is for a national launch sometime later this summer,” Heiberger said. “It’s a matter of getting as many first responder groups across the country to try this as a faster, safer, way of saving lives.”

NFMC is now recruiting first responder organization groups who would consider participating in further testing prior to national launch of the FarmMAPPER system to examine how the system works in a variety of environments and conditions. For information, email or call 1-800-662-6900.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at

Date: 7/15/2013


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