The statistics are scary: Almost 175 horses died in fires in the United States and Canada in 2009. Another 147 met the same fate in the first seven months of 2010, according to Ohio fire safety expert Laurie Loveman, who tracks the statistics online at www.firesafetyinbarns.com. Lightning, faulty wiring, overheated hay, simple carelessness–no matter the cause, a fire can take a barn down in minutes.
If it happened to you, would your horses be saved or lost?
“The biggest concern that we have is that firefighters and other emergency responders don’t know much about horses, especially their behavior under pressure and in scary situations—or even in normal scenarios,” says Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, primary instructor and president of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), which trains responders to deal with horses and other large animals in a range of disasters and emergencies. “Anything we as horse owners can do to familiarize our local emergency responders with horses is going to assist them.”
“It would never hurt for a barn owner to offer a short educational class regarding their operation and plans in case of emergency,” agrees Cindy Coker. A trained paramedic and firefighter in Snohomish County, Wash., Coker is also a horse person, so she sees both sides of the issue.
IT’S A TWO-WAY STREET
The more firefighters and other emergency responders know about horses in general and your operation in particular, the better they’ll be able to take action. And the more you know about emergency crews’ needs and operating methods, the better prepared you’ll be to help their response.
In some emergencies, responders may have time to get expert advice from someone who’s horse-savvy—perhaps the owner or trainer of the horse or horses involved. They can call in a veterinarian who may be able to sedate the horse, says Coker, and consider what equipment or special expertise they may need.
For example, when Snohomish County firefighters were called to help a 20-year-old Tennessee Walker that was wedged between two trees and up to his hips in mud, they contacted Coker. She quickly put in a call to Dana Bridges, a local veterinarian with extensive training in large-animal rescues. Working together, Bridges and the firefighters rigged a pulley system using fire hose and helped the horse to safety.
But in a barn fire, often there is no time to call in experts. Flames can engulf a barn in a matter of minutes. Even if it’s safe to enter, emergency responders in many areas have little or no direct experience with horses. “They have never haltered or led animals and have no idea how explosive horses can be,” says Gimenez. “There is no way that a firefighter who has never caught or haltered a horse is going to be able to do so in a barn fire.”
HORSE HANDLING 101
Why not just open the doors and shoo the horses out? Horses that are stabled may want to stay in or return to the barn, where they feel safe—even if it’s burning—and loose horses may interfere with firefighting efforts or even be hit by responding vehicles, Gimenez says. It makes sense, then, to introduce responders to basic horse-handling techniques before an emergency occurs. A hands-on session at your farm will let firefighters become more familiar with horses and let the horses see the firefighters and their gear.
Responders need to understand the size and strength of horses and the ways they can respond to frightening situations, says Coker. They need to know that horses panic easily and may bolt, kick, or strike out of fear. And they need to know how to approach a horse safely—i.e., from the side—and to stand in safety zones:
- completely out of the kick area (whether the horse is standing or down), or close enough to not sustain injury from a kick
- out of the “head-butt zone,” where the horse can’t throw its head into you
- next to the shoulder (left or right side) close to the body.
To lead a horse to safety, Coker adds, responders also need to understand key principles:
- Control the head, control the horse.
- Never wrap a lead rope around your hand, arm or body. Always fold the lead back on itself and hold the bundle.
- A horse will take its cues from its handler. Stay calm, and you have a better chance of the animal staying calm.
Gimenez says that a long lead rope—15 feet—allows space for the responder to stay safe and for the horse to relax, and rope halters often give the best control. (See page 16 for her instructions for tying an emergency rope halter.) Horse-handling skills require hands-on practice, she adds: “They are actually the hardest thing for emergency responders to learn, and they are perishable skills that need to be practiced.”
Some fire departments may prefer formal training in equine emergencies, Coker says, depending on their budget and the need for such training. Many organized training events are sponsored by community emergency response teams (CERTs) or animal response teams (CARTs); there are also some state-level animal response teams (SARTs). Your veterinarian should be able to tell you what’s available in your area.
Large stables in some areas conduct periodic fire drills in conjunction with their local fire department. This has an added benefit: Everyone can become familiar with the stable’s evacuation plan. Drills like this should be part of every facility’s planning, Gimenez says.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Reaching out to the local fire department also allows you to get professional input on evacuation plans and procedures. Map the plan on a diagram that shows the layout of your farm, post a copy near the barn entrance, and give copies to key workers and the fire department. It should show:
- where horses are located in the barn, and the most direct route for horses to exit
- a safe place, such as a paddock or pen, for the horses to go
- a “plan B”—a secondary route if the most direct way out is blocked.
Your diagram can also include information that, Coker notes, is critical for responders to know about:
- any hazards on the property, such as hazardous materials, large amounts of stored hay or other flammable materials, open pits, and particularly dangerous animals
- any water supplies available to the responders—a fire suppression system in the barn, a pond that could be used for drafting water, a large water storage tank, or the like.
Regular drills will make everyone familiar with the procedures, and horses will get used to being led out of the barn in a hurry, so they’re less likely to balk in a real emergency. Keep a halter and lead near every stall, and make sure all stall doors open easily and latches open quickly with one hand.
Don’t rely on blindfolds for balky horses in a real evacuation. “Blindfolds are useless in most situations,” Gimenez says. “Horses that are cooperative get to live. Crazy horses get left behind, no matter their value.”
Give thought to evacuation when you design or renovate a barn. Stalls with doors that open directly to the outside are ideal, because this eliminates the need to enter the barn aisle in a fire. Then, says Gimenez, fence off fire lanes so that horses can be loosed from their stalls and run out to a safe holding area, eliminating the need for handling. “Teach horses to leave the barn on a signal,” she says.
Ask the fire department to review your plan and check your property with an eye to improving fire safety. “They will tell you things you may not want to hear, like the need to install a sprinkler system and quality thermal-rise heat detectors instead of cheap smoke detectors,” says Gimenez. They’ll also explain what they need to access your property and fight a fire—clearly marked street entrances, driveways wide and straight enough to accommodate fire engines, gates and barn doors kept unlocked, and a reliable water supply, such as a farm pond with a standpipe.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Don’t attempt heroic rescues from a burning barn.
Statistics on actual barn fires show that the structure is often fully involved within 10 minutes. “The first thing to do is call the fire department,” Gimenez says. “Don’t get people killed.”
You may want to offer assistance when firefighters arrive, but you should understand that firefighters and other first responders operate under an incident command structure, Coker says. That is, the fire or other emergency scene is under the control of an incident commander (IC).
“Incident commanders do not let people into a scene if they are not familiar with them and know that they can be safe and work within the system,” Coker says. So a farm or stable should appoint a liaison—perhaps the owner or manager—to work with the fire department.
“It would be important for the department to know who the person is and what their knowledge and training are,” says Coker. In an emergency, liaisons should report to the IC at the scene, so the IC can decide how to use their knowledge and skills. For example, Coker says, if the IC determines that it’s safe to enter the barn, horse professionals might enter with firefighters and work with them to evacuate the horses. Handlers outside the barn could stand ready to take the horses as they are led from the barn.
But “it may not be possible for firefighters to enter the barn at all, depending upon conditions,” says Coker. A model developed at the Phoenix Fire Department helps officers make decisions based on risk/benefit analysis, she adds. It reads:
- We will risk our lives a lot, if necessary, to save savable lives.
- We will risk our lives a little, and in a calculated manner, to save savable property.
- We will not risk our lives at all to save lives and property that have already been lost.