Tips From a Fire Fighter

Contributed by Jim Clark-Dawe
Attorney at Law and Volunteer Fire Fighter
Author of  Equine Liability: What Every Horse Owner Needs to Know
(Available at

MY NOTE: A number of years ago, Jim posted some very good tips on a Google Equestrian Group and he’s been kind enough to allow me to reprint them here for you.  Jim was answering a previous post regarding potential barn fires, so I’ll start with that….

Re: potential barn fires – As far as water goes, you need a good supply. Most rural farms have their own water source which might pump 10 gallons per minute. A typical fire hose will be using 100 gpm. Unless a fire is very small you are not going to do much with a garden hose. A municipal system with high pressure water might have enough force in a sprinkler system to put out a fire. Most barn fires smolder for quite awhile before they erupt into fire. Then most barns burn very fast. As a volunteer firefighter, I have responded to barn fires where the barn was completely burned out in less than half an hour.

Reply from another member:
Jim – now that you’ve confessed to being a volunteer fireman {BTW – standing ovation for all the skilled volunteers and paid professionals who often risk their lives to try and keep us safe!!!]… bet you saw this one coming…)
Can you provide any advice on what kinds of barn structures/designs and construction materials are safer than others from the fire perspective? And any other fire prevention tips you think would be helpful, like details on fire breaks, etc.? Or, “what to do if” suggestions?
Promise not to hold you responsible. Just looking for ideas from someone who knows a bunch more about fires than the rest of us.

Jim’s great reply:

For what it’s worth, here goes:

  • Any large open structure burns faster than the same size structure with walls. This is why barns and churches burn faster than houses. Any place that you can put up a wall will delay a fire. Unfortunately, in barns this is not often possible. A solid barn floor with only a trap door (that you keep closed) works better than a barn with lofts both for falls and fires. On the other hand, fires burning in small enclosed areas are harder to detect.
  • A smoke detector designed for barns is a good investment. Most household detectors will not survive the dust that any barn has. The smoke alarm should be connected to an outside noisemaker loud enough to be heard quite a distance away (at least to your neighbor’s house, if possible). Otherwise, connect it with an alarm system that sends a warning via telephone. A repeater on the alarm in your bedroom is a good idea.
  • A sprinkler system is good if you can afford it and you have enough water pressure. If someone tells you that a sprinkler system connected into your well system is going to work, I have a couple of nice bridges that I’m willing to sell you. In a rural area, water supply is essential. At a major structure fire, two fire engines can be pumping up to 2500 gallons per minute. We can drain a small pond very rapidly at that rate. Know where your best water source is. If you have a swimming pool, that is your first water source (and at night, a fire department might not see it). If you live in an area with hydrants, plan an alternative. Most rural hydrants will not supply enough water to keep one fire engine going.
  • Plan how you would get a fire engine onto your property. They are wider than most pickup trucks and they do not turn as well. Ladder trucks are especially difficult to get around narrow corners. (I can take a corner with a 4-horse stock trailer easier than I can with a ladder truck). Figure out if the ground will support a truck.
  • Hay, gas, oil, scrap wood, etc. should be stored in a separate location.
  • Place halters and lead lines in a location that is quickly available in the dark and for strangers. The problem with this idea is that you have increased your theft problem.
  • Think about access to your barn in the dark. No electricity, just flashlights. Often electrical power is the first thing to go in a fire. If it isn’t, the fire department is going to disconnect it before someone gets an electrical shock. Painting white lines on the floor of your barn to mark aisles is nice.
  • A clear notice of dangerous horses is appreciated.
  • A map or plan of your property (located outside the barn) is helpful.
  • Training your horses to deal with very noisy equipment is useful. Also, most firefighters will not enter a building that has any smoke without turnout gear and an SCBA air pack. In my department this gear is bright yellow. Also, the SCBA is very noisy. If you’re not used to it and it distorts your voice. Every year several children die in fires because they are afraid of the firefighters, so just imagine what your horses will be like.
  • After you remove the horses, where are you going to take them? Get them off your property. It will be very noisy, with flashing lights and much excitement, just the situation to get any horse freaky. Either load them into your trailer and drive them a mile down the road or figure out where you can safely place them. Do not let them loose in the field since they are liable to return to the barn.
  • Best way to keep your horses safe in a barn fire is to keep them outdoors rather than in a barn.
  • Barn fires can spread extemely fast. It is not worth dying for to save a horse.
  • Fire departments also respond to other emergencies in barns. Even if there is no fire, the firefighters may be in turnout gear.
  • Be aware of what problems your fertilizers can cause. Some will explode on contact with water. Others will eemit poisonous fumes.
  • Contact your local fire department. See if they would like a tour of your facility. Most fire departments like tours since this is how we preplan. We will also suggest improvements for fire protection.
  • Some of these improvements may result in a reduction of your fire insurance.

Hope this info answers some of your questions.
Jim Clark-Dawe

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