Fire Prevention Efforts Can Avert Destruction

Overhauling work of Elmont, NY, firefighters underscore the frustrative firefighting strategies that were forced on arrival because of the lack of fire prevention and protection efforts.

Fire Prevention Efforts Can Avert Destruction

Fifty years ago, when a stable (barn) caught fire, it was a loss to the individual farmer. His closest neighbor might be a quarter-mile down the road and fairly well protected from fire spread. Today, there are thousands of suburban communities where horse stables, designed to architecturally match the homes they sit behind, line the backyards, wooden fences abutting similar structures, creating the danger of widespread damage should a structure catch fire.

Photo by Steve Geraghty

More than ever before, horses are a part of the American suburban scene. In 1880, there were 11million horses in the United States. In 1905 (the year that the Ford Motor Company first entered the commercial vehicle field) there were 17-million horses in the nation. With the motorcar firmly entrenched in our society, the horse population in 1921 stood at 20-million, and by 1980, this number had doubled.

Codes, both construction and fire safety, have been either nonexistent in regards to stables, or hastily adapted from existing codes dealing with storage sheds and garages.

Though preventable, most barn fires occur as a result of negligence or apathy regarding fire prevention. The horseman hangs up a “no smoking” sign and figures he’s done all that’s necessary to protect his horses and barn. Except in rare instances, there has been no one to show him the tragic folly of such apathy.


There are many different types of construction methods for stables, but the most common one is the “pole building.”

Fire prevention begins with codes designed specifically for barn construction. However, few architects or professional stable construction companies, especially small local barn builders, are familiar with fire safety codes and construction requirements as they apply to stables. And since there have been relatively few codes related to stables, and considering that once built and approved for occupancy, barns cannot be inspected except upon the owner’s request, it is particularly important that fire service personnel have input into the code-designing process.

All stables, regardless of size, should have a minimum of two exits, both of which are easily accessible and have no impediments to their immediate use. Stables seem to invite clutter, particularly smaller stables with insufficient space for equipment, and there is a tendency to allow doorways or aisles to become storage areas. The common rule for the number of exits is: up to 12 horses, two exits; 12-24 horses, three exits; 24-36 horses, four exits; and 36-50 horses, five to six exits. Ideally, these means of egress should allow the handler to lead a horse into the aisleway and then directly to the outside in a straight line.

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Aisles should be wide enough to comfortably accommodate two handlers and two horses side-byside, and exit openings must be as wide as the aisle to prevent “jamming” at the doorway. Doors should either slide completely to one side or the other, or open outward. Latches must be easily operable with one hand.

If the stall layout is such that there is a long stretch of stalls on one side of an aisle, or two rows of stalls fronting on an aisle, a solid floor-to-ceiling partition should be constructed after every fourth stall to separate it from its neighbor. This solid partition will keep flames from running the entire length of the barn via stall partitions.


The least preferable hay and bedding storage areas are those in close proximity to stalls. However, if there is absolutely no other option than this location, arrangement of the hay stacks should keep bales at least 15 feet from the nearest stall.

Upper-level hay storage is preferable to open stall-level storage because if a fire begins on the second floor, upward movement of the fire and its products of combustion will allow more time for evacuation of horses from the lower level.

Loose hay can easily ignite and spread to painted wood siding. The woodpile against the barn is another noodless fire hazard.

Photo by L3uri6 Loveman

Photo by Laurie Loveman

Cobweb accumulation, like loose dangling hay, permits rapid fire travel.

A still better option is to completely separate the storage area from the stall area in an enclosed room with a minimum of one-hour fire-resistant roofing and wall materials.

Hay and bedding are best stored in a separate building, but this is not often practical.


Fire prevention, for the most part, consists of practices, that is, the tasks done on a day-to-day basis to maintain a fire-safe building. There is much that can be done to minimize design errors, and you should point out these tips in your fire prevention lectures and/or stable inspections.

Obviously, the most common hazard around a stable is an open flame—a match. There are no safe smoking areas in a stable, and owners must stringently enforce the no smoking rule, not just by posting signs, but by firmly telling a smoker to refrain.

Cleanliness in the stable is the best fire prevention measure available to the horse owner, and a broom and a rake are two of the best fire prevention tools. Cobwebs hanging from rafters provide excellent pathways along which flame can travel—so quickly that in seconds fire can spread from one end of the stable to the other. Furthermore, flaming pieces of cobwebs falling into stalls will start new fires. Loose hay and straw should be swept up, and if there are hay drops above each stall, hay should not be allowed to hang over the edges. Like cobwebs, flaming bits of hay can drop and start other fires.

Bacterial and chemical actions that cause spontaneous heating are blamed for a great many fires, particularly those where it is determined that the fire started in a stack of hay. The best prevention measure for this problem is to not accept any load of hay that is not completely cured. Experienced horsemen who buy from a dealer will often not order their hay until late in the season so they have less chance of getting uncured bales. The slightest amount of dampness in a bale is cause for rejection of the load.

Misuse of electricity is another major cause of fires. All electrical wiring should be enclosed in conduit, and this practice should be made a requirement of your city’s building code. Stables still in the planning stage should have the incoming electric supply located away from any doorways so that a fire occurring at the fuse box will not make an exit unusable.

The major concern with electricity on a daily basis, however, is with portable appliances. Kerosene heaters, electric heaters, and sunlamps are the biggest single cause of stable fires today. Heating appliances have no place in a stable except for a human being’s comfort. Horses need only wind protection.

Research has indicated that the length of daylight affects the condition of a horse’s hair coat, so those people showing horses in the winter months have begun to use sunlamps and extra light sources to keep hair coats in prime condition. It’s a dangerous shortcut. In addition to the high heatgeneration levels, unguarded units have provided “playthings,” especially for young horses and stallions, who have been known to rear up and bite at the lights.

Other electric appliances such as radios, clippers, and extension cords should be disconnected when not in use. Any electric appliance used in a barn, including such items as water heaters, pipe heating tape (to prevent water freezing in pipes), treadmills, and insect-control equipment should be routinely inspected by a qualified electrician.

Fire prevention cannot be neglected outside the stable either. Weeds growing close to the barn must be destroyed, and all pastures mowed to lessen the danger of brush fires. If any pastures front on a road, it’s a good idea to leave a barren strip about 15 feet in width to guard against fires resulting from carelessly tossed cigarettes.

Gasoline-powered vehicles and farm tractors should be stored away from the stable, but if it is necessary to keep them close by, they should be parked 3 minimum of 12 feet from any structures housing animals. It’s amazing how many items can be “stored” under or behind seldom-used farm equipment. Those items provide excellent fire fuel.



But, what if fire starts?

In the small suburban stable situation, the structure and its occupants are very likely to be unattended during the day. Alerting systems, such as residential-type smoke detectors, do not work well in stables because dust soon clogs the mechanisms, rendering them inoperable. They can be of value only if they are cleaned daily, and there is little possibility of that being done.

An electrical box pulled free by a horse using it for a back scratcher, exposes unprotected wires.

Photo by Laurie Loveman

Smoke detectors can offer a false sense of security, so horse owners should be made aware that not only will the residential-type smoke detectors soon be inoperative, but without an attendant in the stable, the alerting signal will be unheard unless it is picked up through an intercom system and there is someone in the residence to hear it and respond.

There are smoke detectors available that are specially designed to operate in dusty areas, but they must be professionally installed and usually cost considerably more than residential detectors. Most horse owners cannot afford the expense (costs may reach several thousand dollars for some types), particularly those units that are tied in through telephone lines to the fire department or to a private monitoring station.

Any alerting system employed should have a siren or bell that can be heard from some distance.

Fire suppression is often limited in stables because of the high combustibility level of the building material and contents. As soon as the fire department is notified (horse owners must learn that this should always be the first action taken), evacuation must proceed simultaneously if it is not already underway.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes list requirements for automatic sprinkler systems for use in racetrack stables. However, small systems for use in private stables have not come into widespread use. Sprinkler systems are effective suppression devices and, contrary to commonly-held notions, no person or animal has drowned under the spray, nor panicked as a result of the shower.

Despite the limited use in small private stables, a sprinkler system should definitely be considered when constructing larger public facilities, even if not required by city building codes. It can be pointed out to the horse owner that insurance savings alone will pay for the cost of a sprinkler system.

Portable fire extinguishers are a must in a stable and they should be of the ABC type. However, unless the fire is small and the individual who has accidentally caused the fire or who has discovered it is right on the scene, the use of a portable extinguisher is somewhat limited. Although an extinguisher’s range and time span of effectiveness are relatively short, it may be the device that at least controls the fire spread until help arrives. Therefore, every person who is normally in the stable should be trained in the correct use of extinguishers. Note too that the size of the extinguishing units should be determined in part by the physical size and strength of those expected to use them. A-20pound extinguisher is not suitable for use by a youngster.

Also, a 5/8-inch rubber or vinyl (not linen) hose, in a length at least the length of the stable, should be maintained on a reel mounted halfway along the aisleway and beside a reliable water supply nearest a means of egress. Very few owners will not have a water supply within the stable, whether it’s piped in plumbing or well water. This can be another critical fire suppression method for use by trained personnel until the fire department arrives.

If a brass nozzle cannot always be attached to the hose, it should be located right by the water source and equipped with a snapon connector. Owners should be reminded to check the hose for signs of wear several times a year and repair it as needed.

A telephone is not a luxury in the stable. In case of injury or fire it is the horse owner’s means of summoning professional help. Suggest that, due to the stress of the situation, a large sign should be posted just above or beside the phone with all instructions printed out: Call fire department at (fire department’s number). Say: I have a stable fire at (stable address).

Note that the caller is instructed to say “stable fire” and not “barn fire.” This is to avoid any misunderstanding as to what type of structure the fire department is responding. If special directions are needed to reach the address, those should be printed on the sign as well.

Stable inspections and preplans are good public relations tools. Carry out your inspections with a smile.


Evacuation of animals in a fire should not, if at all possible, be the job of the fire department. First of all, an untrained person attempting to handle an 800-1,200-pound animal in the best of circumstances can have problems. A firefighter unaccustomed to handling horses is as useless in that situation as is the civilian attempting to handle hoselines without prior training. Furthermore, firefighters will be hampered in movement by their turnout gear, and the sight of such protective equipment is liable to further panic an already frightened animal.

It is perfectly correct, however, for fire personnel to direct the orderly evacuation of animals if it has not been done before the arrival of the fire department. Since this is the most difficult task facing the horseman in the event of a fire, let’s take a moment to discuss fire drills, which, ideally, should be conducted with the responding fire company on scene.

All horse handlers should be completely familiar with the stable layout and should practice walking from each stall to the nearest exit. All stalls should be assigned a first exit and an alternate exit so that everyone will know exactly which door to use, or in case the first exit is blocked, will know the alternate door to use. During a drill, handlers can try walking to the outside with their eyes closed so that if they must evacuate through smoke, they won’t be totally disoriented by operating in a state of partial to complete blindness.

Horses must be led out in case of fire, otherwise, confused, they will attempt to return to their stalls. The occupant’s halter, with a leadrope attached, should be hung beside each stall door. During a fire is no time for handlers to be hunting for equipment.

The old movie scenes where the horses were turned loose and ran through the fields and town were a great deal more romantic than practical. There is no excuse for horses to be running free. In their flight from danger they will hinder firefighting operations, possibly cause traffic accidents and, at the least, inflict tremendous damage to landscaping.

Ideally, horses should be led some distance away and securely tied. Horses are intensely social animals; a horse left alone will invariably try to re-enter the barn to find out where everyone else is.

What about the horse who won’t leave the barn? There are two options. First, if assistance is available and other horses have been evacuated, an attempt can be made to lead the animal. An assistant — taking care to avoid being kicked—can prod from behind while the person at the horse’s head exerts firm pressure on the halter, but keeps clear of wildlyplunging forefeet.

If a horse refuses to move forward, he should be quickly and forcefully turned in a complete circle one or more times, then immediately led forward. The momentary confusion following the circles will often be enough to get a horse moving and keep him moving.

In changing directions with a horse, always turn the horse away from yourself so you won’t get stepped on. Sometimes, a horse that won’t move forward can be backed out, but this is one of the last resorts, as it just takes too long to get most horses moving backwards. They don’t like to do it under normal circumstances. Blindfolding horses, long thought to be the ideal means of getting them out of a fire, does not have any value. Smoke irritation will force their eyes shut anyway.

If attempts to get a horse to move fail, we must adopt the second option, leaving him behind. As a firefighter, you know the reasons for this statement, but for the horse owner, especially the pre-teenager, telling him to leave behind a beloved pet is a brutal order, and one with which you will get no ready compliance.

Children, though, may not be your only re-entry worry. A stable employee may see his livelihood going up in flame. The owner may be insured, but the employee isn’t. Each horse lost is income lost, never to be recouped.


There are numerous opportunities to educate the horse owners in your community. Four-H meetings, riding clinics, local horse shows, boarding stables, riding academies, all are available as a forum for fire safety.

One of the most effective means for providing this information is in a session where the owners are together with their horses, such as at a riding clinic or class. If a rider has a hand on his horse, he will be extremely receptive to what you have to say.

As a public relations tool, signs, such as those mentioned for phone use in case of fire, can be distributed if your horse population is large enough to warrant the printing expense. Another good public relations tool is to offer fire safety inspections of stables. These inspections must be publicized as being done with the intention of educating and assisting horse owners, not to censure. Offer to do a preplan inspection for stables with special access problems or for those without an adequate water supply. Also preplan stables on properties having a special feature such as a pond.

Inspections carried out with a smile will be very much appreciated by horse owners. They know profitable equine information when they hear it, and if you have gained their confidence, they’ll put your information to good use.

1 Pole buildings are constructed around square wood columns or laminated 2-inch timbers that are set into the ground at intervals on the building’s perimeter. Wood or metal siding is the usual exterior finishing material. The roof is normally constructed of wood trusses and covered with metal roofing sheets or standard shingles. Because the interior of these clear-span buildings have no structural support to interfere with interior partitions, there are infinite ways for the space to be used. The modular-frame construction that permits flexibility in the size and height of the building has made the pole building popular for farm, industrial, and commercial use.

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