Check back every Wednesday through Feb. 24 for our continuing series on Farm Design, sponsored by VirginiaCountryProperties.com.
It’s hard to forget the terrifying barn fire scene in Black Beauty. While we no longer use kerosene lamps for light these days, fire is still a frightening and very real threat to the safety of your farm and horses. However, fires are also preventable if the right precautions are taken.
“One of the highest causes of barn fires is [electrical problems],” said Lorri Hayward of Hayward Designs. “The second highest is [a hot bale of hay], and the third is carelessness [like smoking in the barn]. You want to try to avoid those potential problem areas as much as you can.”
“The most important thing to have is common sense,” said Matthew Odishoo, who has served as a volunteer firefighter and deputy fire marshal in Berlin, Conn., for the past 26 years. “We joke that lack of common sense is job security for us. Call your local fire department and have them inspect your farm. They will point out some of the problems you have and explain how to make your barn fire safe.”
From The Beginning
Protecting your barn starts in the design process. Because one of the major causes of barn fires is a "hot" bale of hay, it’s important to keep the majority of your hay storage away from the main barn.
“We will not design a loft because it is a fire hazard,” said Lachlan Oldaker of GH2 Gralla Equestrian Architects. “The dust and everything else created by a loft is not good for the horses or the barn.”
“People don’t realize how much heat green or wet hay actually generates,” added Odishoo. “We’ve had some calls for smoldering and smoke from hay bales. Keep that stuff out of the barn until it’s dried out properly.”
Stick To Codes
One of the main themes in this series has been keeping everything up to code. This is doubly important for fire safety.
“When it comes to barn fires, 90 percent were started by electrical problems,” said Odishoo. “Barns need to meet minimal standards, even structurally. That’s the foundation to good fire safety.”
Odishoo’s Quick Fire Prevention Tips
- If you use heat tape to keep your pipes from freezing, make sure you check the tape for cracks or exposed wires on a regular basis. “Every time we see that we cringe. They aren’t made that well, and if they fail, they start to spark and arc. The last thing you need is a spark inside the barn,” said Odishoo.
- Don’t use carpenter heat lamps to heat your stalls. “They can get knocked off and land in hay or bedding and start a fire,” said Odishoo. “We’ve lost an entire barn that way.”
- Avoid extension cords. “Extension cords are not designed to be used as permanent, day-to-day wiring,” said Odishoo. “When animals walk on them, and stuff is thrown on top of them, it creates heat in the cord and can easily start a fire.”
- Avoid parking tractors and vehicles in or near the barn. Engine heat and backfires can spark a flame. Also store other machinery and flammable materials outside the barn.
- Keep appliances to a minimum in the barn. Use stall fans, space heaters and radios only when someone is in the barn.
- Prohibit smoking around the barn.
- Inspect your wiring each season. It’s easier to fix than rebuild.
Keeping Barns Clean
Just because your animals live in it, doesn’t mean your barn should be a pigsty. Cleanliness is one of the main contributors to fire safety.
“The biggest ‘do’ for fire safety is good housekeeping,” said Odishoo. “Keep the dust down to a minimum. I’ve been in barns that you walk into it and know it’s a fire hazard.”
Odishoo also recommended reducing clutter and storing flammable liquids away from the barn or in flammable liquid cabinets to keep vapors out of the atmosphere.
Once you have the basics of fire safety in play, there are additional ways to help protect your barn in case a fire does break out.
“With a lot of barn fires, people find them when they see the glow from the bedroom window,” said Odishoo. “In the past, they were just old buildings. They weren’t surprised when they burned. That’s changing now. The animals are more expensive, and you have to provide better protections.”
The most cost-efficient method of fire protection is to install smoke or heat detectors. Smoke detectors designed for residences don’t generally work well in barns, because dust and condensation can set them off. Heat detectors are a better option—they’re less likely to give a false alarm, but they may take longer to trip than a smoke detector.
“These are cheap fixes,” said Odishoo. “The detectors may help you get to it before it bursts into flame. Once the fire starts you’re in trouble.”
Extinguishing The Flames
If a fire does break out in the barn, it’s essential to try to douse the flames immediately. Fire extinguishers aren’t required in most codes, because barns are generally on private property, but Odishoo stressed the importance of having them in your barn and training your boarders and staff how to use them.
“You don’t have a lot of time to make decisions with all the flammable things in a barn,” said Odishoo. “Anything you can use to put a fire out quickly is important, and anything can make a difference. If you go to call 911, most of the time when you get back it’s ashes.”
- Pull the Pin at the top of the extinguisher. The pin releases a locking mechanism and will allow you to discharge the extinguisher.
- Aim at the base of the fire, not the flames. In order to put out the fire, you must extinguish the fuel.
- Squeeze the lever slowly. This will release the extinguishing agent in the extinguisher. If the handle is released, the discharge will stop.
- Sweep from side to side. Using a sweeping motion, move the fire extinguisher back and forth until the fire is completely out. Operate the extinguisher from a safe distance, several feet away, and then move towards the fire once it starts to diminish.
There are many different types of fire extinguishers, so it’s important to read the directions on each unit. Many local fire departments offer classes or lessons on how to properly use extinguishers.
Sprinkler Systems And Water Supply
While fire extinguishers supplement your fire protection in an emergency, investing in a sprinkler system will further protect your investment.
“A sprinkler system is a very viable solution,” said Odishoo. “Some sprinklers are based on heat activation, and by the time it’s hot enough, it’s too late. You want to invest in smoke activated sprinklers with an open system. When the system is activated, it’ll send water throughout the entire system instead of just individual heads. You would much rather have water damage than fire damage.”
However, one of the problems with a sprinkler system, and fire fighting techniques in general, is that they require a large amount of water to counteract the damaging flames. Not all barns are located near water sources. There aren’t hydrants for pump trucks to tap into, so when the fire department arrives, there’s no access. By the time they get their reserve tanks set up, it’s often too late.
“We have retention ponds on many farms,” said Odishoo. “The fire department will go in and install a hydrant to the bottom of the pond. Any type of water source you can have on the property will help.”
If natural ponds aren’t located nearby, and you don’t want to invest in a man-made pond, a cistern, which is discussed more thoroughly in article six, is another option for a water reserve.
“There’s nothing wrong with a small water source,” added Odishoo. “We’ve had people bury cisterns, 1,000-3,000 gallons, just to have a supply.”
Putting Plans Into Action
Even if you’ve taken strides to install protections like a sprinkler system, there’s no guarantee they will save your barn if a fire breaks out. In any emergency situation, the safety of the people should always be at the forefront of your mind, followed by the horses, then your barn.
To prevent a possible tragedy, incorporate an evacuation plan into your boarder contracts and barn design, and offer drills to your staff and customers. Even in your own small private facility, a well-rehearsed evacuation plan can make a difference.
“One thing people don’t understand is that horses will instinctively run back to the barn. That’s their safety zone,” said Odishoo. “Buildings can be rebuilt. You have a lot of money invested into the horses and the people involved with them, so it’s important to know exactly what to do in case of an emergency. The last thing you want is to have horses running back to the barn and have people chasing after them.”
- Know where your nearest exits are. Consider installing Dutch doors in the stalls so there are two ways to access the horses.
- Keep halters ready for all your horses. Each halter should include the horse’s name, your telephone number, and another emergency contact number.
- Place your horses’ important information—Coggins tests, identification photos and other information such as medical history, allergies and emergency phone numbers—in a watertight envelope. Store the envelope in a safe, easily accessible place.
- Post emergency telephone numbers at each phone and entrance. Include barn owner, manager, veterinarian, emergency response and other important contacts. Also keep your barn’s street address with the numbers.
- Be sure your address and the entrance to your facility are clearly visible from the main road.
- Never enter a barn if it is already in flames. If it is safe for you to enter the barn, evacuate horses one at a time starting with the most accessible. Make sure you have a halter and lead rope on before you open the stall door. Blindfold if absolutely necessary.
- Move your horses to paddocks close enough to reach quickly, but far enough away that they won’t be affected by smoke or fire. Never let horses loose where they may be able to return to the barn.
- Have a veterinarian check the horses after a fire or emergency. Smoke inhalation can cause lung damage and respiratory complications.
- Inform friends, neighbors, owners, employees and the local fire department of your evacuation plans. Make sure you practice the plans on a regular basis.
- Prepare a basic first aid kit that is easily accessible.
An important step barn owners should take is to contact their local fire department and establish a relationship with them.
“The biggest thing we worry about is not knowing what we’ve got to work with,” said Odishoo. “It’s pre-preparedness. We can make suggestions and improve the safety of your barn. This is your home, business and investment. You should do everything you can to try and protect it.”