barn fire

Wise farm owners pre-plan for horse barn fires. Helping your fire department help you can mean the difference between lives saved or lost.

Does your fire department know anything about your property besides its address? If a fire starts, you and your helpers will hopefully be there to evacuate the horses while the fire department is enroute or just arriving at the scene. But what if you aren’t at the scene? What if your neighbors or the firefighters are there before you? Would they know what to expect and what their “job” should be?

Developing a Pre-Plan

Many farm owners don’t realize that you can work out a plan with your local fire safety inspector and other fire department members. This plan takes everyone step-by-step through the process of knowing your property layout, your barn construction and interior design, and your barn’s inhabitants. You and your helpers may already know this information, but firefighters also have to know – before they even reach your property – so they can decide which apparatus should respond, where it should be placed, and what tactics will be used.
These basic questions must be answered:

1. What is the barn’s layout?  Is there a center aisle with stalls on each side, or are the stalls only on one side? Are there adequate exits that can be reached in low to zero visibility by going in a straight line? What alternate exit will be used from each stall in case the primary exit is blocked?

2. How many horses are in the barn and what “kind” are they? For example, a broodmare with a foal at her side will be looking out for the safety of her offspring, which means the foal must stay within her line of vision. That’s a two-person job – one handler for the mare, the other for the foal. If possible, stallions should only be handled by someone normally responsible for their care. Weanlings and yearlings may not have had much handling, and might not be halter-broke. This situation should be corrected immediately, because a horse who isn’t accustomed to a halter and lead rope not only delays rescue, but also imperils you and all the other horses that need to be evacuated. If you have any horse in your barn older than 12 hours, he should accept a halter and be taught to lead (for help with this, read Cheryl Chernicky’s article on halter training babies at

3. In what order should the horses be evacuated?Which kind of horse is in which stall? For instance, is an elderly or disabled horse in the stall closest to the door so his travel distance to safety is shorter? It’s helpful to know if the horse in each stall is easy or difficult to handle, or has any quirks that could impede a rapid evacuation. Keep in mind, though, that horses may not behave in their normal manner during an emergency.

4. Once outside the barn, which paddocks, riding rings, indoor arenas, other barns, or areas on your neighbor’s property have you designated for emergency use? How would a handler find each of these locations in the dark?

5. Will the fire department have access to the barn for apparatus placement? the weight of fire equipment? height clearance? to allow maneuvering of fire apparatus?

6. Where is your water supply and how far away is it from the barn? If there are no hydrants, do you have a farm pond with a dry hydrant available? get water?

7. Where is the electrical panel located? clearly marked so power can be shut off?

8. Are there any hazardous materials stored in or near your barn, such as gasoline or diesel-fueled farm equipment, ammonium nitrate fertilizers, hay, stall bedding, or non-barn items such as

The easiest way to answer these questions is to make a sketch of your property. Locate the buildings on the sketch, and include the roads, driveways or lanes leading from the main road to ear building. Add your pens, paddocks, round pens and pastures to the sketch. Don’t be concerned with drawing to scale; your objective at this point is to answer the basic questions by adding each element to the sketch. You can add distances and dimensions later. You can complete this part of the plan before you meet with your local fire inspector, or with his or her help. If you choose to have assistance from the start, your local fire inspector can point out changes you can make right away to increase your day-to-day fire safety.

Practice Saves Lives

Since firefighters may have to evacuate your horses, you must make sure they know the following:

• How to put a halter on a horse and how to lead him out. If the horse does not have his halter on while in the stall, the halter should be hanging on or next to the stall door, along with a lead rope.

• How to cover the horse’s eyes with a blanket or towel, if needed, in order to get him to move.

• How to lead the horse to a secure paddock or to tie him to a rail, post or anything else the firefighter can find to keep the horse from getting loose.

Verbal and written explanations have to be augmented by handson training. Give your fire department members lessons on how to put a halter on, where on the halter to snap the lead rope, how to hold the lead rope, how to lead a horse who’s willing to move, and how to get an unwilling horse to move.

Firefighters can’t learn these skills by merely reading about them. They absolutely must practice with live horses.

In developing any pre-plan, all these questions – and questions specific to your property – have to be answered, and the answers must then be fine-tuned by running fire drills to discover what changes need to be made to provide the most efficient means of rescuing your horses. In the event of a fire – where lost minutes can mean lost lives – having a pre-plan can make a big difference in the outcome.

Laurie Loveman is an author, Fire Department Officer, and a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities. She has a degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and is a consultant on fire safety in equine facilities. With more than 40 years experience in the horse industry, Laurie has written many articles for equine and fire service publications, and her Firehouse Family novels, set in the 1930s, reflect her interest not just in horses, but on topics relevant to firefighting, such as stress, medical ethics and arson. In her spare time, Laurie enjoys working on a horse farm, spending time with family and friends, and researching 1930s history.