Written by: Shawn Hamilton
Your guide to sensible disaster planning and emergency preparedness.
While chatting with someone in the aisle of a barn I have never been to before, I hear “Fire! Fire! Evacuate!” I run to the closest occupied stall, open the door to see no halter on the horse. I close the door. I look for a halter. No halters, no lead ropes in sight. I run around the barn looking for anything I can wrap around a horse’s neck to get it out safely. As I pass other stalls I see more horses, and still no halters and no lead ropes anywhere. I finally find one halter, grab it and put it on the closest horse to me to lead him outside. A thought occurs to me: what do I do with this horse once I get him outside so I can come back to get the others?
This was exactly the scenario presented on a farm just outside of Ottawa, Ontario, in the first 15 minutes of a recent clinic conducted by Equi-Health Canada instructor Jenn Burgoyne. Due to the number of fires, increased loss of animals and evacuations last year in Canada, the organization held a number of Disaster Planning and Emergency Preparedness clinics around the country to help educate livestock owners on how to prevent, plan and prepare for emergency situations. No matter what the disaster – fire, flood or extreme weather conditions – there are a number of things you can do to help yourself and your horses.
While we are powerless to prevent natural, weather-related disasters, and only able to plan ahead to minimize damage, the majority of barn fires, on the other hand, are preventable. The three Ps of avoiding a devastating barn fire are: Prevention, Planning and Preparation.
You might think most barn fires start in the hay loft and are caused by moist hay heating up. Even though hay heats up as it dries, and the drying process can take up to six weeks, hay is not actually the number one cause of barn fires. Mechanical or electrical failures have been the most common culprits. Faulty wiring, dust around outlets and improper use of extension cords, for instance, are hazards that can be avoided. Here are a few key measures to help prevent a fire in your barn:
- Check your barn wiring regularly for faults and dust.
- Make sure extension cords are the proper grade and are in good condition.
- Consider eliminating the need for extension cords by having proper receptacles installed by a licensed electrician.
- Use heating equipment with extreme caution.
- Make sure all wiring is agricultural grade. White wires are generally residential grade, while black and yellow ones are designed to handle exposure to elements. The mistake is often made to use residential wires, as they are cheaper and more readily available. The safest way to be sure is to ask a licensed electrician who can interpret the codes written on the wires.
- Run wires through metal or PVC piping to protect from chewing rodents. Use pest control measures to minimize rodent occurrence.
- Store hay in a separate building from your livestock if possible.
- Don’t bale or put away hay that has a moisture content of over 20 to 25 per cent – use a probe to measure the inside of a bale, it should read below 54°C (130°F).
- Stack your hay on pallets to allow for air movement; do so loosely, in a crisscross pattern, in alternate layers.
- Place well-labeled and visible fire extinguishers every 15 metres (50 feet) in your barn and make sure staff and regular visitors know how to use them.
- Keep fans a safe distance from wires so they are not able to get caught up and tipped over.
- Post ‘no smoking’ signs around the barn and enforce the rule.
Hay will heat up once it is baled, so check the temperature regularly with a probe when you first store it. If it measures over 66°C (150°F) degrees call the fire department. There may be a fire started already. It takes nearly 1,900 litres (500 gallons) of water per minute to put out a fire of 250 square bales.
Planning & Preparing
Avoid on the spot, emergency decisions by pre-planning evacuation procedures and practicing them with boarders, staff members and horses.
- Have an escape plan and a designated safe zone. This should be a pre-selected paddock away from the barn to stop horses from re-entering the barn and to keep them away from the danger.
- Leave lunge lines or ropes at the exit, which can be strung up or held up to create a chute to herd horses through to the safe zone.
- Place lead ropes or lunge lines in plain sight.
- Teach your horses to lead with just a rope around their necks.
- Make sure exits are clear of items such as wheel barrows or tractors.
- Hang posters at each exit showing a site map and an evacuation route.
- Always know how many horses and people are in your barn.
- Firefighters have a difficult time opening clips with their protective gloves on, so have easy to open stall door latches.
Floods & Extreme Weather Conditions
Flooding is the most common natural disaster in North America, and some areas are vulnerable to ice and wind storms, and even tornados, all of which can result in power outages. We cannot control mother nature, but there are a few things we can do in order to prevent further damage and injury in such situations.
To prepare for an extreme weather event start by gathering information about the area you and/or your horses live in. Think about what is most likely to happen where your facility is located:
- Are you in a flood plain, grassy dry area or tornado alley?
- Is your facility old and susceptible to strong winds?
- Are your horses kept inside overnight?
- What emergency broadcast systems are available to you?
- Do you have a battery-run device on hand to get information in the case of a power outage?
Next, think about your facility’s design, as well as what measures you can take to minimize damage and make an evacuation go more smoothly:
- Have easy to open gates and safe fencing.
- When designing your paddocks, look for some high ground in each, provide at least two exits and avoid power lines and poles if possible.
- Have sand bags, straw bales or shavings on hand to create re-direction walls in case of flood. A common mistake is to build a wall for protection, but the water eventually builds up pressure and either breaks the wall or goes over. Use sand bags to redirect the water to a low area.
- Make sure structures are strong; examine their integrity often.
- Ensure that outbuildings are secured to the ground. Canopy style shelters that are not fully secured to the ground can be carried away in high winds. Tent pegs into the ground are not secure enough to hold structures in extreme winds. If you are not sure of the integrity of your structure, ask an engineer or builder.
- Remove accumulated snow from roofs to prevent collapse.
- Label and have a list of hazardous materials; store them in a safe place.
- Heavy machinery should have tie downs available.
- Avoid having loose debris around.
- Have covers for your water troughs available to protect it from contaminants, ash or blowing debris. After an emergency situation, it is good practice to drain water troughs and refill with clean water.
- Have a chainsaw, fuel, hammer and fencing materials in a kit before the storm hits.
Every community has a designated evacuation site in place for humans, but very few have accounted for livestock. Check with your municipal office to see what plans are in place in your area. If an evacuation zone doesn’t exist, Equi-Health Canada/Equi-First Aid USA will train interested parties and give presentations at town council meetings to assist in implementing a plan and designating a safe zone. Here are a few key requirements in creating an evacuation zone:
- Have a main route and an alternate route to the designated spot.
- Choose key people, in advance, to be responsible for transportation and the collection and organization of feed, water and any other necessities.
- Plan to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. The minimum requirement for the typical horse is 19-36 litres of water per day and four to eight kilograms of hay/grain supplements per day.
- Consider erecting shelter and corrals in the location in advance of an emergency, if possible, or arranging for temporary holding pens to be delivered upon evacuation.
- Generators may also be required as well as pumps for water.
When an evacuation alert goes out, there is a potentially imminent threat, but when an evacuation order is issued, you have no time; you must be ready to execute your evacuation plan immediately. Here are a few helpful tools that will help you to be prepared:
- Have an emergency contact list in your car, barn and by the phone.
- Halter tags with your contact info can be a useful tool.
- In large-scale evacuations luggage tags can be braided into the mane or tail. Halters should not be worn in any emergency situation as they can get caught on anything.
- Use a permanent marker to write your contact info on the horse’s neck or hoof. White or yellow fabric pen can be used for dark horses.
To enquire about existing evacuation plans, contact your local: Red Cross, St. Johns Ambulance, Emergency Management Agency, Agricultural Society.
The amount of thought and effort you put into your disaster preparedness plan before it is needed, will go a long way to determining a positive outcome. For more tips and information, visit equihealthcanada.com.
In any emergency situation, the safety of yourself and other humans always comes first! Only have experienced people handling horses in an emergency to avoid injury to people.
The most important thing to remember when handling frightened horses is to STAY CALM. Your stress and anxiety will increase your horse’s fight or flight instincts. Know the basic body language of a horse, and remember that horses have several blind spots – one is directly in front of their head for approximately four feet under their neck, and directly behind. Try not to approach them from theses angles. Horses also take longer to adjust from light to dark and vice versa.
In the case of an earthquake do not approach your horses.
A Farm Emergency Kit
- List of all animals, location, record of feeding, vaccinations and tests
- Supplies for temporary IDs
- Basic first aid kit
- Handling equipment: halters, leads etc.
- Bolt cutters
- Water, feed, buckets and sanitation tools
- Cell phone, flashlights, portable radios, batteries
- Safety emergency items for your trailer and vehicle such as spare tires, tire iron, jack, WD-40 or other lubricant, shovel, sand, tow straps, jumper cables
- Food and water for a minimum of 72 hours