Fire Suppression: Before the Fire Department Arrives

Fire suppression–the action taken to extinguish a fire–is often limited in barns because of the high combustibility level of the contents and because as soon as the fire department is notified (this should always be the first action taken), evacuation of animals must proceed if it is not already underway.

Portable Fire Extinguishers

I used to advise barn owners and managers to have adequate water supplies in the barn, not only for watering livestock, but also so that if they were on the scene when a fire started and was still small, they could have a chance to fight it, or at least keep it contained until the fire department arrived. I don’t do that any more because trying to extinguish a fire on your own is just too dangerous and uses up valuable time when you could be evacuating the occupants of the barn.

That said, I still advise keeping portable fire extinguishers in your barn, keeping in mind that unless the fire is small and the individual who has caused the fire, or discovered it, is right on the scene, the use of a portable fire extinguisher is limited.  Although the range and time of effectiveness is relatively short, an extinguisher may contain the fire while barn occupants are being evacuated, so every person who is normally in the barn should be trained in the correct use of extinguishers.  Your fire department members will be glad to teach you how to correctly use a fire extinguisher.  Make certain everyone who might have to use an extinguisher receives enough practice that they are comfortable with handling it.  A fire is no place and not the time to learn.

The best extinguishers are those with a steel head.  They may be more expensive to purchase initially than those with plastic heads, but steel-headed extinguishers may be recharged, so in the long run, they will cost less than single-use extinguishers.
Extinguishers have to be rated for the type of fires they will be used on.

  • TYPE A extinguishers are used where cooling is needed, and will put out fires composed of ordinary combustibles (wood, cloth, paper, rubber, plastics).
  • TYPE B extinguishers are used where oxygen has to be excluded or the flames must be interrupted. TYPE B extinguishers will put out flammable liquid fires (gasoline, oil, grease, tar, oil-based paint, lacquer, flammable gases).
  • TYPE C extinguishers must be used where the extinguishing agent cannot be an electrical conductor. That means this is the only type of portable extinguisher that can be used on energized (carrying current) electrical wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery and appliances.
  • The only exception to the use of TYPE C extinguishers would be the use of a multipurpose extinguisher that is rated ABC.

Locate the extinguishers in plain view near an escape route and at a height convenient for everyone to reach, and post signs indicating their location.  Also place at least one extinguisher outside the barn because the fire may be located close to a door which could prevent someone from reaching in for an extinguisher.

The size of the extinguishers should be determined in part by the physical size and strength of those expected to use them.  A twenty-pound extinguisher is not suitable for use by many older persons or youngsters.  If your barn is frequented by large numbers of children, it might be a good idea to ask your fire  department’s advice on extinguisher size and locations.  Extinguishers should be checked periodically and recharged annually; fire protection companies will do this for you on an automatic basis.


  • NEVER fight a fire if the fire is spreading or already large.
  • NEVER fight a fire if it could spread enough to block your escape route.
  • NEVER fight a fire if you haven’t been trained how to use a fire extinguisher.
  • NEVER fight a fire if you’re not sure your extinguisher is the right one for the type of fire.


Your extinguisher must be rated for the type of fire it is supposed to put out!

Water conducts electricity and will deliver a possibly lethal shock to the person handling a pressurized water extinguisher or hose line.



How Much Water do You Have and Where is it Coming From?


Many barn fires start in organic material or wood, so a water supply is critical. That fuel may smolder for awhile before being detected, either by fire detection devices or people, and when that smoldering material reaches oxygen, the fire burns very hot and very fast.

Firefighters often respond to barn fires where the barn was almost completely gone upon their arrival.  Here’s the information taken from one run report of a barn fire:

Time of call:0357 (3:57 A.M.)
Time of arrival:0405 (4:05 A.M.)
Time of building collapsing:0420 (4:20 A.M.)
Construction date:1970-1973
Structure(s):2 horse barns 90 x 100 feet, connected by a 30 40 foot structure, possible breezeway
Construction:Wood with thin aluminum roofing material with ½ inch styrofoam sheet insulation
Fire Protection:Heat detectors and alarmed
Damage Estimate:Unknown. Buildings total loss
Fatalities: 55 horses (Upon arrival of the fire department, the barns were fully involved in fire.  Both barns collapsed within 15 minutes).

Having an adequate water supply is a real problem on many farms, and what little water might be available from wells will become inaccessible if electrical power is interrupted since electricity is required to operate well pumps.  Even with a pump, there might be only ten gallons per minute (gpm) available.  A typical fire hose will be using 100-125 gpm, so unless a fire is very small you are not going to do much with a garden hose.  In fact, fire engineers have given this example: If a barn has a total hay storage capacity of 1000 bales, the unfrozen water supply would be 40 gallons for contents and 50 gallons for structure per bale of total storage, totalling 90,000 gallons storage.  Envision a good-sized swimming pool or pond to get an idea of how much water is needed.

If an adequate water supply is not available on site, it will have to be trucked in by fire department water tankers and depending upon how far away the water is, and how many tankers are available, the water supply and the time taken to get it, can spell the difference between saving something  (possibly the barn, most definitely other buildings) and total loss.


Sprinkler Systems

I’m a firm believer in sprinkler systems being installed in every facility where humans or animals live or work.  You see, all the alerting systems devised won’t do you a bit of good if there is no one in the barn to start evacuation. Even with the most advanced alerting systems, too much time is lost from the time the alarm is activated, the alarm is relayed to the monitoring systems, the monitoring system alerts the local fire department, and the fire department responds. In that short a time—maybe 15 minutes or less—your animals could already be dead from smoke inhalation and half the barn may have burned down. THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP YOUR ANIMALS ALIVE IS WITH A SPRINKLER SYSTEM.

Firefighter Irv Lichtenstein, who has more than 30 years in the fire service,  reminds us, “No building with a properly designed, installed and operating sprinkler system has ever been lost. It is interesting to note that the worst high rise fire in Philadelphia’s modern history was reportedly extinguished by less than 10 sprinkler heads opening up when the fire finally reached a sprinklered floor. That was after it had killed 3 firefighters and destroyed about $150 million of building that was not sprinklered.”

Please take the time to watch this side-by-side demonstration of a sprinklered vs. a non-sprinklered fire scene. This demonstation rooms are residential, but the exact same thing holds true for your barn. If you are willing to spend extra dollars to make your barn a little nicer looking, think very carefully about putting those extra dollars to protecting your animals and your property. “Pretty” doesn’t save lives.

Types of Sprinkler Systems

There are two main types of automatic sprinkler systems in general use today; the wet-type and the dry-type.  The wet-type of sprinkler system has water in its pipes all the time.  A  wax seal or a fusible link in the sprinkler head (purposely made of a metal that deforms when heated) keeps the water from discharging unless heat generated by a fire melts the seal or deforms the fusible link.  Water is then dispersed by all sprinkler heads opened by the heat of a fire.

Dry-type systems are more useful in northern climates where water cannot be maintained in the pipes because of freezing temperatures.  The dry-type system, therefore, operates on a slightly different principle.  Water is maintained not in the pipes, but in a 250 to 500 gallon tank pressurized with nitrogen gas that’s kept at above-freezing temperatures.  The water is held back by compressed air until the air is released by the opening of a sprinkler head, allowing the water to flow.

How well do dry systems work?  Well, Paul Sincaglia, P.E., with Hughes Associates, Inc., one of the world’s leading fire protection engineering and code consulting firms, sent me this news story:  “There was a fire at Philadelphia Park, outside of Philidelphia last Wednesday (June 20, 2007) in a stable with 25 million dollars worth of horses in it.  A cheap box fan hanging in a stall caught fire from the fan motor.  The plastic melted, the burning fan motor fell off the unit onto the straw on the floor and a fire started.  A sprinkler from the dry system went off putting the fire out before the fire company got there.  One horse suffered a singed tail and a blister on the back of one leg.  That was the only damage besides the straw on the floor.  Not even the stalls had damage, except for slight charring on one.”


Both wet and dry 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.  In a sprinklered dog boarding facility in Nevada, a fire was quickly extinguished by one or two sprinkler heads and none of the 40 dogs in the vicinity of the fire were injured, nor did any suffer from smoke inhalation.  And, although there was some smoke and water damage to the building, all the dogs were fine, and the damage was so minimal the facility was open for business later the same day.

It is extremely important, however, that a sprinkler system have an adequate year-round water supply, and it must be noted that the dog boarding facility just mentioned was on a municipal water supply.

If you don’t have a municipal water supply with hydrants, but you do have a pond on your property, installing a dry hydrant is a wise decision.  A dry hydrant is a water delivery system that uses six-inch or larger PVC pipe with a standard fire department connection.  One end, with a strainer attached, is placed in a deep area of the pond that doesn’t freeze in winter.  The land end, with the fire department connection, allows a pumper to hook up to the hydrant and draw water from the pond.

For more information about dry hydrants, check out ETT Fire, at, and Mainstream Dry Hydrants, at You can find even more information by doing a search for dry hydrants.

If you don’t have a pond, but would like to have one constructed, have a dry hydrant installed at the time of construction.  In either case, consult your fire department and state Department of Natural Resources for requirements, permits, or further information.  If permits are required, don’t start work without them, and be sure to notify your utility companies before digging.  Your fire department will determine where to place the hydrant so they can quickly gain access to water to supply their apparatus.

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