Rural Connections: A Rescue Through the Snow

Photo by Andrew Bossi.

By Tim Zehnder

In this month’s Rural Connections I will recap an incident of which I was recently made aware. The incident occurred in a rural community in a southern Minnesota town of 750 people and showed how important volunteers are to the communities they serve.

On April 14, 2018, southern Minnesota was hit with a major snowstorm. The snow and wind started around 0800 hours, and by 1200 hours there was 12 inches of snow or more on the ground. All roads were closed. The county and state pulled plows because of the rate of snowfall and low visibility. By 1900 hours the snow had piled to 14 inches or more, with snowdrifts as high as three to four feet because of the extreme winds. The snow was wet, heavy, springtime snow, making the roads very slippery.

The fire department was well organized, providing fire protection and first-responder service, part of which is covered by a basic life support (BLS) service to the west and an advanced life support (ALS) service to the east. At around 2030 hours, this department and the ALS unit were called to a location about three miles south of town for a person who had fallen and was unconscious but still breathing.

It was difficult for members to get to the station because of the large amount of snow on the ground, but they were still able to get the rescue rolling to the scene in about three minutes. On the way to the victim’s location, they heard the ALS unit call for a state or county plow to help create a path to the location because the department runs two-wheel drive units only and had to travel about eight miles to get to the location. On the way to the scene, members in the rescue discussed options; a call was made to the members with plows on their pick-up trucks so they could start opening the road to get the ALS unit to the scene.

On arrival, members found that the driveway and dooryard had blown in, and there was around 17 to 20 inches of snow on the ground. The chief told the members who were bringing plows that the driveway and dooryard were the priorities so the ALS unit could get to the house.

The crew exited the rig with its equipment in the knee-deep snow and headed to the house. Once inside, the crew realized it was dealing with a “full code” and made the call to get the BLS rig to head to the location because it had four-wheel drive, thus it would get there faster. The BLS unit arrived along with a member in his personally-owned vehicle (POV) plowing the way.

The BLS unit arrived five minutes before the ALS unit’s arrival. The volunteers plowed the entire yard, driveway, and road to the scene. The ALS unit arrived on scene and were happy to see the four-wheel drive unit already there. The patient was loaded into the BLS unit with paramedics on board, and both rigs (along with four POV plows) headed to the hospital.

The two ambulances headed to the hospital with four POV plows in front of them for the eight-mile trip; the city roads had been plowed the rest of the way. On the way back to the station, the ALS unit actually passed the plows it had originally requested on the way back to the station.

Of the incident, one member exclaimed, “to say I am proud to be a volunteer fireman is an understatement.” The department with which he serves is “top-notch” in all aspects. Its determination and dedication to getting any task done is unmatched, while its members give up much more than just time for trainings, meetings, and responding to calls, never asking for anything in return. This is what a small town is all about. Without volunteers, the patient may have reached the hospital in a much great amount of time than he finally did.


Tim Zehnder began his fire service career in 1990 as a member of the Truman (MN) Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, where he has held every position from firefighter to chief. He received his emergency medical technician and NFPA 1001 training that same year. Zehnder has a degree in fire science from Lake Superior College. He also worked for two years as an engine foreman for the United States Forest Service at the Payette National Forest in Idaho, was a Minnesota State fire instructor for 18 years, and was the fire rescue training program manager at a Minnesota state training college for seven years. He retired from the Truman Fire & Ambulance service in April 2013 after more than 21 years of service. Zehnder then accepted the position of director of fire science at the Mid Plains Community College. He is also a paid-on-call firefighter with the McCook City (NE) Fire Department and the president of the Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors as well as the city of McCook’s 2015 Firefighter of the Year. Zehnder co-authored the “Grain Bin Rescue” video for Fire Engineering Books and Videos and presents programs on firefighter survival and safety, rapid intervention team, rural tactics, grain bin rescue, and more. He is also an International Society of Fire Service Instructors 1403, Live Fire Instructor, and travels the country delivering the program.

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