Detection and Alerting Devices

Even though it was quite awhile ago, Marquette, Michigan firefighter, Bill Dupras, still vividly recalled the Valley Oak Farm fire in 1981.  “When we arrived, we could see the fire was going to be a hard fire to put out…due to the heavy fire load inside with all the stored hay.  When the fire was finally put out, the barn was mostly ashes with all the livestock underneath them.  To me it was a sad fire largely because the horses never had a chance from the beginning.”

When a fire starts, minutes are critical.  You want to be alerted immediately and you most definitely want the fire department dispatched as soon as possible.   Smoke detectors installed in homes have been credited with saving many lives by warning residents of danger and allowing them time to escape.  Unfortunately, residential and commercial type smoke detectors do not work well in barns because dust soon clogs the mechanism, rendering it inoperable unless it is cleaned frequently.

Barn Swallows

In our barn, the previous owner had mounted a residential type smoke detector on a ceiling joist.  The overhanging base of the detector on the side of the joist provided the base for a barn swallow nest.  We knew the detector probably became inoperative within a couple of days after installation years earlier, but we didn’t take it down because we had fun watching the barn swallows swoop in and out of the barn. There was a slight problem, though.  The detector and its nest were in the center of the aisle way and halfway down the length of the barn,  so no cross-ties could be used in that location due to the peril of being “dropped” upon.  It was a minor inconvenience, though, considering how bug-free the swallows kept the barn.

Do not despair, however, if you really feel smoke detectors in your barn will provide you with peace of mind.  Optical smoke detectors are available that are designed to operate in dusty areas.  These detectors must be professionally installed since the location of detectors within the building is specifically designed for the structure.

Heat detectors can be used in conjunction with smoke detectors, and their placement in your barn should also be determined by a certified installer.  Heat detectors are effective only in closed spaces such as your tack room, feed room, or other utility rooms.  If a heat detector is triggered in open areas, such as the stalls, it is usually too late.

There are two types of heat detectors: rate of rise and fixed temperature.  The rate of rise detector alarm is activated when the air surrounding the detector rises several degrees in a very short period of time, usually ten degrees Fahrenheit within sixty seconds.  Fixed temperature heat detectors are designed to activate at a preset temperature which can range from 135°F. to 190°F.  The setting will be determined depending upon the location of the heat detector.

Costs may reach several thousand dollars for some types of detection systems, but if you can afford the expense, professionally-installed smoke and heat detectors are definitely a worthwhile investment.  But, I cannot stress enough the importance of having any detection or alerting system installed by a professional.  In fact, this is a very good time to introduce you to Macy Hallock, who was a state certified fire alarm installer and life safety professional during the time (1977-2002) he founded and operated FM Systems.  He is now a consultant to a major alarm central station monitoring company and continues to attend many alarm industry seminars and events, so he is quite up-to-date on the latest technology.  A number of years ago, Macy replied to a Google Group question regarding fire detection systems in horse barns.  His reply: “If you wish to protect the lives of the building’s occupants (as opposed to the structure itself), you will have to design to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, just like a hospital or other similar “life safety” application.  Normally you would use smoke detectors, installed at spacing determined by square footage, with height of the ceiling (higher ceilings de-rate smoke detection) and ventilation taken into consideration.  This application presents some other unique problems, though.

“There are two common types of smoke detectors: photoelectric and ionization.  Each type has its own weaknesses.  Livestock barns are usually not suitable for either type.  The ammonia and dust in the air cause false alarms.  Of the other types of detectors made, the flame-signature infrared/ultraviolet system works best (except for smoldering, spontaneous combustion type fires, common in barns).  This is what the military uses in jet hangers and it’s very expensive.  For people who are determined to have smoke detectors installed in their barns, this is how I have handled this problem in the past:

  1. I warned the customer that this would be a somewhat expensive and a high maintenance installation, otherwise a high number of false alarms could be expected.  And no other guarantees, either.
  2. I used photoelectric detectors with detachable hoods and placed them in the barn using NFPA and (especially) the guidance of a factory fire safety engineer (NOT the sales rep).  Usually, I spaced them on 20-30 foot centers and was sure to keep them accessible for service.
  3. I taught the customer to clean the detectors every two to three months, and made him keep a written record.
  4. I designed the system with pre-warning: When tripped, a local beep tone sounds for thirty seconds before the main alarm signals to the central alarm station.  This allows the cancellation of an alarm locally when caused by throwing hay bales (dust), etc.
  5. I made sure the customer was the one who kept the place clean in the first place.

“If you are going to do this installation yourself, be sure ALL components are UL listed for fire alarm use, including the wire (they will be plainly labeled as such) and get decent commercial-rated equipment from a professional company.  Get your system designed by an experienced company.  A poor installation is worse than no installation at all; it gives you a false sense of security.   I don’t wish to sound negative, but fire alarm engineering and installation is seldom successfully done by amateurs, a least without a LOT of help (just talk to your insurance company loss prevention engineer or fire marshal for their ideas on this).”

Another type of detection system is the linear heat detector, manufactured by Protectowire Co., Inc. This is a heat detector in the form of a heat-sensitive wire that can be easily installed in a barn. The wire is available in a variety of operating temperatures that can detect heat at any point along its length. The wire is connected to a control panel that can monitor the alarm status and provide critical functions such as alarm notifications, location of the overheat or fire, sprinkler system activation, and emergency backup power so the system is always functioning (see Products page for website).

Keep in mind regardless of system: Even if the alarm is transmitted to a central monitoring station, without an attendant in the barn, the alerting signal from smoke and heat detectors will not be heard unless there is also an exterior alarm or the signal is picked up through an intercom system and there is someone in the residence to hear it and respond.  The siren or bell should be loud enough to be heard from some distance.  If alerting of helpers is done by someone in the barn, he or she must have access to a manually-operated farm bell or siren outside the barn.  In some areas, such as multi-barn facilities or race track barns, a flashing red light or a strobe light activated by the alerting system is mounted on the roof to attract attention and indicate which building has had an alarm activated.

An intercom system can be helpful when you’re at home.  If you are unaccustomed to continuous use of an intercom, a few days of “training” will teach your ears to sift out the usual from the unusual and you will no longer hear the bumping of salt blocks in feed tubs or similar normal sounds.  What you will hear is anything else–a horse in difficulty, intruders, frightened neighs.  An intercom system doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive.  It is a valuable instrument for “seeing” your barn when you’re in your house.

I probably should issue a warning here in case you have a built in intercom with a speaker in your bedroom and you have one or more barn cats who hunt at night while everyone in the house is asleep.  It’s hard to say this nicely—if the demise of the prey occurs near the intercom speaker, you will hear your cat’s cute purring turn into the snarling growls of a jungle cat and the intercom may magnify the sound so you think you’re in the middle of a horror movie!   Amazingly, in my house, I seemed to be the only person who heard those bone-chilling screams that caused me to leap out of bed, ready to scream myself.    Well, enough of the nightmare stuff.  What’s important here is that you have the intercom speaker(s) placed where you can hear any abnormal barn activities clearly.

It’s frightening to consider that a fire might start when no one is home or near the barn, so an alerting system tied through phone lines to a central monitoring station can bring great peace of mind.  The fire department will be notified immediately, even if you are unavailable.  The Yellow Pages of your telephone directory lists, under the heading, Fire Alarm Systems, firms who install alerting devices.

telephone is not a luxury in the barn.  In case of injury or fire it is your means of summoning professional help.  Calling for help in the midst of an emergency, however, should not require that you do anything more than read.  Even if you are on your own property, the stress of the situation may cause you to forget your address.  To make this extremely important call and relay information accurately, post a sign at eye level next to the phone.  Clearly print out instructions. You have to tell the caller exactly what to do and say, as in this example: CALL FIRE DEPARTMENT AT (your fire department’s number or 9-1-1 if that service is available in your area).  SAY: I HAVE A BARN FIRE AT (farm address).  If special directions are needed to reach your property, post those also.  Here’s the sign I created for my barn:

Barn Phone Sign
Barn Phone Sign (Click to download PDF)

Please Download the sign and make as many copies as you need, write in your own information, and slide the signs into plastic sheet protectors before posting them in every location you think they’re needed.

In some rural areas, where everyone knows everyone else, it may only be necessary to say, “This is Joe Smith, my barn’s on fire!” and help will be on its way, but most of us with horse properties live in suburban or semi-rural areas, so we have to make sure that everyone with access to our property knows where the phone(s) and signs are and can read the instructions.  If you have a multi-lingual barn make sure you have instructions printed in the appropriate languages.

You have three choices when considering voice communication from your barn, and each has its pros and cons:

A wall-mounted, wired phone tethers you to a specific part of your barn, so if you’re calling the vet, for example, you might not be within cord’s length of the ailing animal’s stall or enclosure and will have to go back and forth to check on current symptoms.  Or, you may not be able to leave the horse because you’re providing first aid (such as applying pressure to an arterial wound) so you have to rely on another person to relay information to the vet.  On the other hand, everyone always knows where the phone is and can probably get to it in the dark.

cordless phone gives you more freedom than the wired wall-mounted phone, but if the last person who used the cordless phone got distracted after finishing their call, they may have set the phone down anywhere and forgotten all about it.  The cordless phone might not be in its holder when it’s needed.

Having a cell phone in your pocket is great and offers the advantage of not needing wires (which can be destroyed by heat and flames), but if you’re calling 9-1-1 you will have to provide your address, which means having your information signs posted in several places, including the exterior of the barn or a nearby building where there is good lighting.  The bad part about relying on cell phones is that not everyone has a cell phone or knows how to use one, so the person in the barn who has to notify help must have a well-charged cell phone on their person at all times.

I want to leave you with one sobering, last thought about alerting systems when it comes to saving animals’ lives (or human lives).  Unlike the use of detection and alerting systems in high-rise office buildings or other commercial establishments occupied by humans, where the warning allows for immediate evacuation by ambulatory people—in other words, they hear the alarm and leave the building on their own power—confined animals do not have that option.  The most modern, technologically advanced detection and alerting systems available can’t save animal lives if there’s no one on site to begin evacuation immediately.  Long before a fire may even be noticed, there may be enough smoke generated to kill every occupant.

The only sure means of containing a fire and saving lives is with a sprinkler system.  If you can’t afford to have a sprinkler system installed in your new barn while it’s under construction, or don’t have the funds to retrofit your existing barn, then you must be as pro-active as possible.  You should use fire retardant products in construction or in special applications to existing structures. You must keep your barn clean and free of hazards.  You should schedule fire drills at least twice a year—more often if you have many people in and out of your barn at different times.  And, second to the value of a sprinkler system, you should have a centrally-monitored detection and alerting system that is the best you can afford.

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