Developing an Equine Barn Escape Plan

By Frank L. Hicks, Jr.

(Reprinted with permission from Firehouse Magazine, © Copyright March 1993)

     A recent barn fire in Ocala, Florida looked like a real disaster when the fire department arrived. Residents were not at home at the time of the fire. The structure was totally engulfed. Yet not one of the 15 horses was lost, thanks to a barn escape plan the fire department had implemented with the owner.
Many fire departments are taking more aggressive roles in barn escape plans. They are contacting barn owners and offering suggestions for a barn escape plan.
In this instance, there were five basic steps to the escape plan:

  1. Escape plan displayed in the barn and given to all renters.
  2. Planned fire drill every six months to a year.
  3. Training of firefighters in horse handling.
  4. Training of horses in smoke exposure.
  5. Equipment installation.

Purpose of Plan

The purpose of this particular plan is twofold: To get the horses out safely; and prevent loss of life or injury in removing the horses. This is not a fire prevention plan for the barn, but rather what to do in case of fire or similar disaster.

Escape Plan

Mark the route of escape from each stall. This can be in a red or yellow line on the floor or the wall from the stall to the nearest door. One place has gone so far as to install a tone buzzer at each escape door. Each tone is different for each door. Each stall has a number next to it in red. A similar number is on the escape door.
A printed chart is made of all the escape routes. This is posted in the barn and also a printed copy is provided to each person’s rental stall, when applicable. In addition, each chart is highlighted for the escape route in that area. Also, the usual fire escape signs are installed. Although I say usual, I would estimate that one in 100 barns in Utah has a fire escape sign in the barn or even an exit sign. One part of the plan which many barn owners forget is where to put the horses once they are out of the barn. If you empty a 50 stall barn on a cold, snowy winter night with only five people, what do you do with the horses once they’re out?
Part of the plan is to determine if a corral is big enough to hold them all, if mares and stallions are to be separated, how foals and nursing mothers are to be handled. It makes little sense to save a horse from a fire only to have it killed by a car or break a leg outside the barn.
One large barn actually arranged a “shoot” from all escape doors that led into corrals at each end. In that way, horses were led to the door and released. The corral was far enough from the barn to protect the horse from the barn collapsing on them.
It is also a good idea to include in your plan a list of various barns in the community which you can move horses to in an emergency. Many barn owners work out a plan together to support a disaster of any individual barn owner, especially in bad weather.

Fire Drill

The escape plan only works if the people involved know what the plan is and how to use it. Therefore, a drill is performed at least once a year and, if personnel change a lot, twice a year. The fire department needs to promote this drill with full response. Firefighters need the practice with horses. In the drill, fire officials spot troubles, crowded doorways, etc. It also gives you a chance to time how long it takes to empty a barn with one, two or three people. Change the drill so that in one case a particular door is blocked. In one unannounced simulation drill it was found that two of three escape routes were blocked by hay stacked up. This resulted in a weekly “fire” patrol to ensure that all routes were maintained open.
And don’t forget the neighbors, especially the neighbors without horses. In case of a fire, they may be the difference between the horses living and not, if no one else is around. Get them involved. Give them a chance to handle the horses and know what to do. In one case in a populated suburb of Chicago, a fire broke out in a stable while the owners were at a horse show. A neighbor called in the fire and had all the horses out of the stable before the fire department arrived. When they did arrive the structure was totally lost. All the horses would have perished had the neighbor not personally led the horses out.

Training Firefighters

Even if the rest of this plan is not possible, fire departments need to arrange training of horse handling with local barns. They need to participate in the drill and actually handle the horses. Most firefighters have never handled horses. Set aside a day every month or every other month when a few of the firefighters show up and learn how to handle a horse, take it out of the stall and exit the barn. The firefighters should know the layout of the barn and what to do with the horse when the horse is outside the barn. And the firefighter needs to work with rank horses, not just calm peaceful ones. Some barns have actually simulated smoke, supplied by the fire department, to help the firefighters get the feel of a scared horse and what to expect. This type of training has been credited in saving many horses and firefighters in dangerous situations.

Horse Training

The horse training should make the horses:

  1. Used to smoke.
  2. Used to firefighters, the uniforms, sirens, flashing lights, etc.
  3. Used to being put out with all the other horses at the same time.
  4. Used to hoods, blankets, water, etc.

Use of smoke does two things. It helps the horse to settle down when the real thing
happens. It also helps handlers to spot potential problem horses. In this way, they can use the more experienced handlers on the problem horses.
The other part of training the horses deals in use of special equipment. It may be advantageous to use hoods or blankets on horses. It may be necessary to put water on the horse and blankets, or even hose down the horse. All these things are easier if practiced with the horse before the real thing.

Equipment

There is a variety of equipment that can be on hand: hoods, blankets, ropes, halters, gloves, special releases for metal latches that may be red hot and axes to break open locked or stuck doors.
A rope may be the best tool in case of a fire. It may be impossible to put a halter on a scared horse in a fire, but you can put a rope around its neck if there is one handy. There should be one for emergency use at each stall, but the fire department should also be prepared with such equipment.
Barns seldom have any plan for a possible barn fire. Fire departments need to take the lead and help barn owners set up a plan. And the department needs to participate in drills. Test it several times in actual simulated emergency, just like a school or house fire drill. Give all those who may play a part a chance to do what may be necessary in case of a fire. Have the necessary horse equipment on hand and in place at all times. Make sure all the firefighters have training in the handling of horses.


Frank L. Hicks, Jr. has worked in the equine risk management business for about 15 years, selling equine insurance and structure insurance such as barns and stables. He has written on the issues of equine risk management for many horse related magazines.