12 Ways to Fireproof Your Barn

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What will happen if a fire breaks out in your barn? If you think you’ll get the horses out in time to save their lives and that firefighters will quickly douse the flames and save the structure, here’s a reality check: “You probably have five to seven minutes from the time you first notice the fire to the time when the barn is fully involved and too hot and dangerous to enter,” says equine rescue expert Rebecca Gimenez, PhD. That’s not much time to evacuate the barn—and probably not enough time for firefighters to even get there.

“Prevention is the only way to go,” says Gimenez. In addition to Gimenez, we turned to three experts. Besides Gimenez, who trains emergency responders to handle horses in fires and other disasters for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (www.tlaer.org) of South Carolina, they are equine and farm insurance agent Kathy Kane of Smith Insurance in Niantic, Conn., and Ohio fire safety expert Laurie Loveman.

Most barns, these experts say, are just waiting for a spark—and that spark could come anytime, from faulty wiring and electrical equipment, lightning, arson, stored hay, or dozens of other causes. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are nearly 1,100 fires in U.S. barns every year. Not all involve horses, but more than 300 horses died in such fires during 2008 alone, Loveman says. It’s just common sense to do everything you can to keep your horses out of those grim statistics.

Here are their 12 tips:

1. Ban smoking.

“An open flame, which a cigarette basically is, should never be permitted in a barn,” says Loveman. As obvious as this seems, some smokers ignore fire risks—and rules. Put up “No Smoking” signs and enforce the ban throughout the barn, including storage areas, tack rooms and lounges.

2. Update the electrical service.

As bad as smoking is in a barn, the biggest cause of barn fires is the misuse of electricity, Loveman says. The barn needs adequate power and circuits, on breakers, to prevent overloads. Replace old wiring, make sure all electrical lines run through metal conduit to prevent damage by rodents, and protect light bulbs with metal cages. Have enough outlets—placed out of horse reach—to eliminate the need for extension cords. Unplug clippers, vacuums, and other appliances when not in use, and don’t use portable heaters in the barn. (Loveman has much more information on electrical and other fire-prevention topics on her website, www.firesafetyinbarns.com).

3. Clean up.

Sweep out cobwebs (they’re flammable) and don’t let dust build up—especially around light fixtures, outlets, and switches, where a spark can ignite dust. Clear out clutter and trash in the barn, and rake up leaves and litter outside. If you live in a wildfire area, clear brush, trees, and tall grass to create a firebreak around the structure.

4. Store combustibles away from horses.

Keep hay and bedding in another building, with only a day’s supply in the stable. (If hay and horses must be in the same building, they should be separated by approved fire doors and firewalls.) Vehicles and machinery should be in a third structure; they can provide the spark for a fire. Don’t store flammable materials like oil and gasoline in the barn. “Remember that stored hay and manure piles are susceptible to spontaneous combustion,” says Kane. Monitor stored hay for heat, and don’t pile manure right next to the barn.

5. Install fire alarms.

“Cheap smoke detectors are no good in a barn because dust will set them off,” says Gimenez. “But there are flame and thermal detectors and other good options.” Have a professional install a system that’s linked to a central monitoring service. An alarm won’t help if no one is there to hear it.

6. Install fire extinguishers.

Get 10-pound “all-purpose” ABC extinguishers (five pounds is too small, Gimenez says) and mount them where you can reach them quickly—at barn entrances, at the electrical panel box, and midway down the barn aisle. Mark the locations with reflective signs, keep the extinguishers pressurized, and make sure everyone knows how to use them. “People waste the filling or even spread the fire by using extinguishers incorrectly,” says Gimenez. Your local fire department can provide training.

7. Install lightning protection.

Lightning strikes a building because the materials in it are better conductors than air, notes Loveman; a lightning protection system catches the strike and carries it into the ground, where it dissipates harmlessly. These systems must be properly designed and installed, she advises, so call in a professional.

8. Install a sprinkler system.

This is an expensive upgrade, but it could save your horses and your facility by suppressing a fire almost as soon as it breaks out. Even if your alarm system automatically alerts the fire department, it may take 15 minutes for firefighters to reach the barn and get set up. In that time, Loveman observes, your horses may be dead from smoke inhalation (the top cause of fire-related deaths for horses) and half your barn may be lost.

9. Have enough water for firefighting.

Water supply can be an issue if you’re not connected to a municipal water system—many wells don’t supply enough pressure to fight a fire, and a fire-related power failure will knock out the well pump. A fire pond is a good solution, Loveman says; consult your fire department and state Department of Natural Resources for requirements.

10. Ensure access.

Make sure firefighters can find and reach your facility. Street entrances should be clearly marked, gates kept unlocked, and driveways wide and straight enough to accommodate fire engines (which are bigger than horse trailers, Gimenez notes). Don’t lock barn doors or allow vehicles or equipment to block access. “In winter always have a clear path for emergency vehicles to access your barn,” says Kane.

11. Ensure egress.

Keep a halter and lead near every stall, and make sure all stall doors open easily and latches open quickly with one hand. Better yet, if you are designing a new barn or renovating an old one, put in exterior doors to each stall. Often a barn is engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrive and they can’t get inside, Gimenez says. “Firefighters will try to chop through walls to get the horses, but not many will be saved.”

12. Hold fire drills.

Have an evacuation plan, and practice it regularly. “High turnover is a problem in public barns—new workers and new clients may not know what to do,” notes Gimenez. Drills will help everyone be familiar with the plan and reveal problems in it. Practice will also get horses used to being led out of the barn in a hurry, so they’re less likely to balk in a real emergency.

“Many larger stables schedule annual fire drills with their respective fire departments,” says Kane. “It’s also important that your local fire department have a layout of your farm.” You can also ask your fire department to do a walk-through of your facility, to point out other fire-protection strategies specific to your barn.

Some of these steps can decrease your insurance costs—most companies allow credits for central fire alarm and sprinkler systems, Kane says, and some offer additional credits if you have a formal manual outlining safety and fire prevention procedures. More important, though, fire-prevention measures may keep your horses, your barn, and your business from going up in smoke.