We have all heard it, and most of us believe it. It goes something like this: "If you leave a halter and lead rope outside your horse's stall, then a firefighter or first responder can halter him and lead him safely from the stall and out of the barn in a fire."
Who told us that myth, and where did they learn it? And why do we continue to tell others the same myth? The truth is that in most barn fires, the common theme is that by the time someone notices the fire and attempts to respond, the fire has burned out of control and quickly consumed the building. There wasn't even a chance to get the horses out. And in the meantime, it's not necessarily the flames that have killed the horses inside, it's the smoke.
As a rule of thumb, fires double in size each minute. The process follows strict rules of physics related to fuel load, ventilation, and oxygen availability. This means that usually by the time a flame is noticed, the fire department will not be able to get to the facility in time to save any people or horses trapped in the barn. In fact, numerous incidents have shown that you can expect the average barn to be fully "involved" (engulfed in flames) in the seven to 12 minutes that it takes for the fire department to be notified, respond to the location, and begin to fight the fire.
I have been working with Laurie Loveman for several years. She maintains an online database of barn fires involving animals at firesafetyinbarns.com. Her efforts and data show scores of fires involving animals. It's important to realize, though, that many fires are not reported in the news and, thus, are not reflected in her numbers. The news tends to only report incidents where large numbers of animals, or one or more people, are injured or killed. This implies that the actual number of tragic deaths of horses in fires is much higher.
We, as an industry, have "ostrich syndrome" when it comes to barn fire preparation ... we think it won't happen to us. However, a quick look at the statistics shows that this is the No. 1 nonmedical emergency that injures and kills horses. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, or what your education, race, or background is. What matters is this: What you have done to prevent and mitigate fire at your facility?
I asked the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), "Why are fires such a problem in horse barns?" And, believe it or not, it turns out that they have an (lengthy) answer laid out for all of us in a publication called NFPA 150: Standard on Fire AND Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities that can be purchased online from www.NFPA.org or directly at nfpa.org/aboutthecodes/AboutTheCodes.asp?DocNum=150.
The basis of the issue is that the fire service's recommendations are wholly, or at least partially, ignored by persons building most horse facilities. Horse people tend to read barn building and design books These books go into ad nauseum detail on other aspects of barn design, but I feel they tend to avoid two crucial areas: planning for appropriate facility ventilation and planning for an optimal fire detection/alert/response method.
The DETECTION--ALERT--RESPONSE--SUPRESSION method is one that has been proven to salvage public buildings, residential homes, and private barns that are outfitted with appropriate smoke and flame detectors plugged into an alert system (usually to a security company). These buildings are prepared for immediate responses from first responders and fire departments all while a suppression strategy is initiated (automatic sprinklers are best).
We often forget how much it takes to fight a fire in a place where there are so many combustibles (hay, shavings, rubber mats, wood structures, etc.) in one place. One recent example: One recent example reminds us of just how flammable barns are.
No horses died (they were outside at the time of the fire), but this article gives you an idea of the sheer logistics involved in fighting a barn fire. The newspaper writer asked the interesting question: "So what does it take to fight a barn blaze in the countryside, miles away from any municipal water supply?" The fire department's answer: 12 hours (in August heat and humidity), more than 100 firefighters from 23 fire departments, the Red Cross, EMS, and the transportation of more than 200,000 gallons of water (about as much as you'd find in an average farm pond) to the fire site. Even if that much water was available, few horse facilities are close to fire plugs.
This fire caused an estimated $150,000 in damage to the facility and the owners lost 8,000 bales of hay.
Based on the above, we need to begin looking at the statistics, the fire science, and the complex reasons why we are rarely able to save horses trapped in stalls during barn fire conditions so that we can improve the odds of saving horses involved in barn fires.
What do you do in your facilities to prevent and mitigate these scenarios? Do you practice a barn fire evacuation? If so, please directly e-mail me a copy of your plan at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will help you evaluate it (I call this a "sanity check"). We will highlight the best ideas next week! We will talk about the best practices that are suggested for prevention, mitigation, and design of facilities related to barn fire response for the real world.