Barn Fire Prevention: A Proactive Approach

A barn fire is every horse owner’s worst nightmare. Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, president and veterinarian of Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), explains how preparedness can mean the difference between life and death.


A trainee rehearses evacuating a horse from a stall filled with fake smoke during a TLAER evacuation practice training event.

By Dr. Rebecca Gimenez

Barn fire prevention requires a proactive strategy and a tough stance on daily management. Most people don’t realize that once flame ignites, the entire building will be “fully involved” by 7 to 12 minutes, and there will be nothing alive within that space in less than 5 minutes. I am a firefighter in my community and the truth is, most fire departments have a 5 to 10 minute response time to get to your property — assuming they can find it (do you have a good address out front at the road?) So if there is a poor detector, or if you don’t know there is a fire until you see flames, and you don’t have extinguishers and doors to the outside of the stalls, your chances of getting your animals out are also poor.

Standardized and crucial safety equipment that are required in human occupied residences and public buildings are usually non-existent in horse barns and even veterinary hospital barns, to include working smoke and thermal detectors, hardwired alert systems, inspected fire extinguishers, and automatic sprinkler systems. We put multi-million dollar (and, just as valuable, pet horses that are beloved members of our family) inside barns and leave them locked in for hours at a time with no way to escape. They depend on us to do the work of prevention of fire, and that truly goes way beyond the “barn fire prevention lists” that make the rounds of magazines and blogs every time a big barn fire happens.

If you think about it, every building that you go into has 2 exits — even your rented hotel room has a window exit and the door. Very few barns spend the extra dollars to put inside aisle doors and outside wall doors to a stall, yet this is the single best way to ensure that you can evacuate your animals. Of course, having a paddock outside the barn doors is even better so that you can chase them out into the paddock then send them down a laneway to a further pasture while you deal with the burning building. Again, that requires elements of the design and layout of the facility that many people have never considered.


The lone equine survivor of a 2013 Washington state barn fire that killed 21 horses is given oxygen. Photo courtesy of The Auburn Reporter.

Designing a barn to be able to better respond to a fire requires several aspects to be thought about.

  • It must be able to DETECT a fire with good quality smoke/flame/heat detectors — even if humans aren’t present.
  • Then it has to ALERT the response system (locally, the fire department is alerted and begins to respond).
  • Prefer that you can (if present) EVACUATE the animals from the outside wall (no one should go into the interior aisle) or sending them down a lane way to evacuate themselves to a far pasture. This works best if practiced occasionally.
  • Finally, SUPPRESS the flame threat (usually via working extinguishers, hoses and sprinkler systems).
  • Then get the RESPONSE on scene (local fire department arrives to fully extinguish the fire).

Smoke detectors from WalMart are not sufficient for barns — you must hire a contractor to put in the types of detectors that can actually detect the types of fires in barns, preferably at the smolder stage before flame development. This will include smoke, heat and thermal detectors that are hard wired into your security systems and to the local fire department, improving the chances of a response even if you are not on the property, at night or on vacation. Although this will be more expensive than the battery powered ones you can purchase, they actually work, and initiate the alert and response cycle. These are outlined in NFPA Standard 150.

Sprinklers are what NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) strongly recommends in their Standard 150. However, horse people and even veterinarians too often come up with all kinds of reasons why they can’t use them, from “they are too expensive” to “I don’t have enough water pressure” to “It gets too cold here” — without ever actually asking a contractor for a quote and getting a realistic idea of the cost, or speaking with their insurance company about how much it would lower their premiums. Sprinklers are much cheaper to install, maintain and are far more reliable than in the past; no excuse is strong enough not to put them into new barn construction, and retrofitting is becoming far more affordable. Recently I had one of my TLAER course attendees retrofit an entire Olympic horse facility in Middleburg, Virginia, for a little less than $500k including all the overhaul and improvements to their four barns. She said that the insurance savings alone will make it pay for itself in just a few years, plus the ability of herself and her employees to sleep at night in their above-barn apartments was a blessing.

When I speak with people who have lost their barns and their animals to fire, they tell me that if they had known that there were better options for detectors and sprinklers, no cost would have been too much to prevent them having to go through the horror of watching their beloved animals and their property destroyed. Remember: Veterinarians, fire and ventilation engineering and fire department personnel are the very last experts to be consulted by horse people when they build a barn. They use the expertise of the Internet and advice of their next door horse neighbor, a barn building book, or attempt to build it themselves depending on the code enforcement (or lack thereof) in their local area. The “traditional” way that we build barns hasn’t really changed in hundreds of years — barns in Germany and England from the 1400s look very similar to ours today. We owe it to our animals and our clients to change our attitudes towards barn fire prevention and get more professional about it.

Here are two things you can do TODAY to improve fire safety:

Call your local fire department and schedule a PRE-PLAN for your facility. They will make suggestions and give you ideas as to better prepare for their arrival and should go through a checklist with you — here’s a good example.

Call an electrical contractor and have your electrical evaluated to see if it is up to date or needs to be improved. Wiring that is over 20 years old usually needs to be updated and put into conduit, electrical service boxes need to be updated or cleaned up, and lighting and switch fixtures often need to be replaced.

Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue Training offers consulting and training nationwide (United States) and internationally for emergency response services, such as fire departments, rescue squads, law enforcement agencies, emergency management, county and state emergency response teams and animal control officers. Dr. Rebecca Gimenez is an internationally recognized speaker in these types of issues and the editor of the only textbook in the industry “Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue” by Wiley publishers and available at numerous online booksellers. For more information on TLAER visit This article was republished with permission from the Novobrace blog.

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