Fire Safety in Barns Is All About Planning Ahead

by | 05.20.2014 | 4:03pm
An early morning barn fire claimed the lives of eight Thoroughbreds May 9. The barn was located on Rice Rd., near Keeneland

The tragic loss of eight horses in trainer Gerry Carwood's barn near Keeneland on May 9 reminded farm managers and horse owners just how rapidly a barn fire can alter lives forever. The prospect of preventing fire in a wood structure that houses flammable feed, hay, and straw seems daunting, but experts say that a financial and time investment before a fire starts can help minimize losses.

“I was assistant manager on a farm for three years, and you don't think about it until something like this happens,” said Katherine Wheeler, consultant for National Throughbred Racing Association.

Simplex Grinnell, a company that specializes in safety equipment, is working with the NTRA to provide members with a resource to help prevent and plan for barn fires.

Tim Walker, equine account representative for Simplex Grinnell, said that requirements for fire safety equipment are often driven by tragedy. Fire codes became stricter and more enforced after the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977. The Kentucky blaze killed 165 people. There are strict codes for businesses, buildings of public gathering, and multi-family dwellings, but the requirements for farms and training barns are not well-defined and rarely enforced.

Preparedness for a barn fire is three-pronged: prevention, planning, and monitoring. Walker and Wheeler urge managers to think about checking their electrical systems, especially in older barns where wires may be exposed without conduit. Storage practices on the farm could use examination, too—it's best for hay and straw to be stored in a separate building from the one where the horses live, since those materials can spontaneously catch flame under certain temperature and moisture conditions. If separate storage isn't possible, it's best to keep bales on the ground rather than in a loft.

“Sometimes you'll go into a barn and see corn oil right next to hay. That's a big no-no,” said Wheeler.

Space heaters are another big problem, especially the older ones commonly found in tack rooms on the backstretch.

Walker also recommends implementing a no-smoking policy in all barns. More than 50 percent of all residential fires start as a result of smoking-related products, whether those are matches, cigarette butts, or falling ashes.  Many times, the fire starts long after the smoker has moved on to another location.

Another key to reduction in damage and loss of life is conducting meetings with the fire marshal and providing the nearest emergency responders with detailed maps of the farm and individual buildings. This can help firefighters to provide in an immediate on-site response to the problem and work to keep livestock safe. Larger facilities like WinStar and Shadwell have named and clearly labeled their internal roads, which helps emergency crews navigate. Clear labeling of barns by name or number can also save time and confusion.

Walker says that having an evacuation plan is not enough—it's best for employees and animals to practice the plan annually. It is also important to provide this training as part of a new employee orientation program.  Keep halters and leads readily available by each stall, and have a designated spot for securing horses after evacuation. Many people don't know, if let loose after evacuation, horses often run back into a burning barn. Walker has heard of cases where horses on turnout near a flaming building panic and try to enter the building also.

Be sure employees know the locations of fire extinguishers, and that the extinguishers are up to date on their inspections. The chemicals in the extinguishers settle over time, preventing the devices from working properly.  Annual training on the proper use of fire extinguishers is also important.  Many fires can be extinguished with a portable fire extinguisher before the fire spreads.

Walker recommends the installation of a sprinkler system and smoke detectors in barns. A sprinkler system can control the spread of flames and often extinguish a fire before any loss of life.

“It's amazing, going into some of these large, well-known farms that have a detection system, but the lack of preventative maintenance causes the detectors to get dirt and dust in them causing false alarms. As a result, many systems are powered off versus maintained to eliminate the false alarms. I know it's a really dusty environment, but there are solutions,” said the NTRA's Wheeler.

Simplex Grinnell is offering free walk-throughs to NTRA members interested in improving their safety program.

Horseman Tip Sheet for Barn Fire Prevention

  • Know what fire departments are closest to your facility.
  • Invite the nearest fire department to your facility for a tour. Provide them with a map of your barns and routes in case of an emergency.
  • Have an emergency list of other barns in the area that may be able to assist you in the event of a fire.
  • Provide firefighting training for your staff. Familiarize yourself and staff with how to use a fire extinguisher.
  • Get together with your neighbors and share your fire safety plans with them. Even the ones without horses. They may mean the difference in saving your horses lives if no one else is around.
  • Post “No Smoking” signs at all entrances to the barns.
  • Make sure all doors are able to open or shut in emergency situations.
  • Install smoke detectors.
  • Install automatic sprinkler systems in all barns and stables where animals are housed.
  • Install a fire alarm system to notify all involved if a barn or stable catches fire. You need a 24/7 monitoring company to notify you and the fire department in an emergency situation when no one is around.
  • Test fire extinguishers annually to ensure they are properly charged and remove all expired extinguishers.
  • Establish an escape plan for horses and humans.
  • Conduct fire drills to execute the escape plans.
  • Know your horses and what to expect from them in a stressful situation.
  • Tour other farms with sprinkler and fire alarm systems.
  • Add cameras on the property


*If you want to update your barn for fire safety in the best way possible, please consider retrofitting with a sprinkler system.  There is no better way of protecting your horses (and any humans in your barn) than with either a wet or dry sprinkler system installed by a licensed fire protection systems installer.  No matter how many alerting systems you install, if there's no one around to evacuate your horses within the first few minutes of the fire starting, their chances of escaping are very poor.  Sprinkler systems work!!

  • Michael Castellano

    Sprinkler systems are a must. Worked in an office once and a disgruntled employee started 5 separate fires to burn up a rather large space. The fires were set on a Saturday night when the building was mostly empty. The fires all burned locally but were put out by the sprinklers and the office was even still partially useable, the building itself was unaffected.

  • nu-fan

    I find it amazing that all animal installations are not required to have automatic sprinkler systems installed. I’ve even become aware of a couple of small animal clinics where a fire started at night—when no one is there. No longer will consider boarding my dogs for that reason.

  • Disgruntled boarder

    I have boarded at barns here in Lexington where gasoline for farm equipment and gasoline powered equpment were stored inside the barn with the hay and the horses!!

    • nu-fan

      That is incredible!!!! What were these people thinking?

      • 2hoursfromsaratoga

        “They” were NOT thinking

  • Teresa Bossow

    Sprinkler systems would be great but some barns haul in water and most run on pump wells. Theses barns are not heated and the lines would freeze in winter.

    • Michael Castellano

      I believe the water can come from tanks that are underground, and in the winter water would only be sent through the above ground pipes and sprinklers when they are activated by a fire or heat source.

      • Teresa Bossow

        You would have to bury tanks several feet deep and refilling would be a nightmare. You would really need heated barns and very few can afford that for all the northern horse barns. I have had horses for 41 years and every horse has a private paddock with a run in stall. They can always get out. Plus, smart people wire barns correctly and leave nothing flammable in the horse areas. My hay is in a separate barn and no gas or oil is ever left in the barn area.

        • Michael Castellano

          Perhaps a large above ground tank with a solar panel and insulation would work better, at least in some areas where it doesn’t get too cold.

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