Barn fires happen to people in all sectors of the horse industry.

Photo: Photos.com

At the AAEP 2014 convention in Salt Lake City in December, Coralie Mouraw (a third-year vet student at University of llinois) and I worked together on a presentation for veterinarians that highlighted some of the simple, as well as the more expensive and difficult, methods of changing what we do when building barns to take into account barn fire safety for our animals.

We made the point that traditional barn design really hasn’t changed over the past 600 years and that, despite improvements in many aspects of fire prevention and building ventilation engineering, many barn builders and owners never consult with fire fighters, veterinarians, or ventilation engineers when they build their barns. We hope to change horsemen's attitudes about barn fires – they're not just tragic losses in many cases, but rather they're also preventable accidents that deserve our attention and diligent improvements.

We put together these six best ways to design, manage, and build a barn for prevention of barn fires, and be able to better respond and remove horses (in the 3 to 5 minutes before the fire department even shows up). The published article is available for download by your AAEP member veterinarian, or by request to me personally at delphiacres@hotmail.com.

1. Every human house, public building, and restaurant has at least two exits from every structure. This is dictated by the NFPA’s (National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Codes and Standards). Why don’t horses have stall doors to the outside wall as well as the inside one? This should be standardized by all barn designers, giving any responder on scene (even without fire fighting gear) a chance to remove a horse from its stall without running into the dangerous inside aisleway (which always collapse into the center under fire conditions). It is even better to have a small paddock on the outside, so that the horse can be let out and haltered and led away from the barn. It's even better to have a run-out lane so that all horses let out of their outside doors can be chased down a laneway to a pasture away from the barn, and then the gate shut to prevent them from returning.

2. Barn and horse facility designers and builders should consult NFPA 150 Standard on Animal Housing for best practice guidelines on how to improve electrical services, separate combustibles and flammables,  and include appropriate use of firewalls and fire curtains to prevent fast movement of fire and smoke, use of advanced detection and alarm systems for smoke, flame and carbon monoxide, the use of installed sprinkler systems, etc.The firefighting community has made excellent suggestions for best practices for facilities of all sizes to reduce the occurrence of fire, and to minimize effects if it does occur. Does your barn builder, architect or designer know about this document?

3. Minimize the obstacles in the aisleways. Tack boxes, hay bales, wheelbarrows, and tools laying in the aisle makes it harder for firefighters to enter the aisleway and actually reach the horses in a real response. If they trip over your obstacles, they will probably refuse to enter the barn further because safety for the humans is paramount over your horse victims.  Make it easy for firefighters to access and put access aisles at least every 50 feet through the barn. If they have to go more than 120 feet to get to the other end, firefighters will be reluctant to enter even in firefighting gear. The ability to egress is important.

4. Minimize the fuel load in the barn. From a firefigher's perspective, everything inside a barn is combustible fuel – from the shavings and hay to the rubber mats. Storage of hay and straw above the horses in the same space as the horses is something that was done hundreds of years ago – they didn’t know better. Today, we know from hundreds of tragic fires that it's foolish to increase the amount of fuel in a barn – fuel will only compound an incipient fire and speed its spread. Does your barn have hay above the horses? Make sure your barn owner knows how dangerous it is, and ask them to put it in a separate building at least 50 feet away from the horse facility.<

5. Make sure you have increased the chances of the firefighters finding your barn. Do you have a big reflective sign with the number on it out front? Can they get through your gate and down your driveway, then around the barn (preferably on gravel or asphalt?) Do you have fire extinguishers in place and hose systems hooked up at all times to attempt to put out the flames until the fire department arrives? Do you have a pond or standpipe hydrant that they can use for water? So many people that we talk to after fires tell us that the firefighters couldn’t access their property, couldn’t get to the barn, or didn’t have enough water available to fight the fire. This requires preplanning with your local fire department officials. Invite them to your property and ask them to conduct a full pre-lanning tour to discuss ways that you can improve fire safety and response to your property.

Make a plan and practice your plan. Start from the middle of your driveway and see how long it really takes to get to the barn, get the horses haltered, led to a safe paddock or ring, released, the gate closed, and then return to get the rest. It usually takes a lot longer than you think, and with a three- to five-minute window of time from flame ignition, it can be a sobering experience. Make improvements as you practice until you can perform this challenging task in less than 5 minutes.

Barn fires happen to people in all sectors of the horse industry – from rich to poor, from show to performance to work to pleasure to backyard. Don’t let it be you that gets that gut wrenching whiff of smoke and fear. Do something about it today… this is by far the best present you can ever give your clients, your horses, and yourself.

What fire-prevention methods have you used in your barn?