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    Fire Safety At Your Animal Sanctuary

    A red fire alarm.

    This resource has been partially reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of December 21, 2023.

    Structure fires are unfortunately common in agricultural operations, and given the environmental similarities, farmed animal sanctuaries are just as prone to these emergencies as farms. Fires have struck sanctuaries in the past, and will always be a persistent risk. Although there are many aspects of a barn environment that are susceptible to fire, with diligence and regular review, you can help prevent a tragedy on your sanctuary grounds.

    Electrical Safety And Fire Prevention
    Electrical fires are one of the leading causes of barn fires. Therefore, electrical safety is a crucial aspect of fire prevention. To learn more about this very important topic, check out our resource here.

    First, Have A Plan

    All of your structures, especially those that have residents regularly living in them, must have a fire safety and evacuation plan (in addition to the other contingency plans for your sanctuary). This should be an easily accessible and actionable document that all humans at your sanctuary are aware of in case of emergency. This plan should include:

    • A list of potential fire hazards within each structure
    • Regular preventative measures to be taken for fire safety for each structure
    • An actionable strategy for vacating each structure of residents and humans
    • Any mission critical elements within the structure
    • A place for displaced residents to safely go
    • A system to identify similar-looking residents to confirm everyone made it out safely
    • A list of humans to contact in case of emergency

    Does the predator situation in your environment allow you to keep some doors unlocked so that residents could escape a fire on their own? Would anyone be able to access the structure quickly to free enclosed residents in case of emergency? Is the fire department aware of your sanctuary and its layout?

    All of this should be carefully considered and relayed to staff; a plan never put into use is far more valuable than a lack of a plan in an emergency, and fires can devastate a property in mere minutes. Depending on your sanctuary’s layout, it may even be a good idea to conduct regular fire drills on your property. All fire safety plans should be updated as your sanctuary grows and evolves.

    Don't Smoke In Structures

    Nobody should smoke in any of your structures. Not only is it not good for residents or humans to breathe in the smoke, but a well-established blanket ban on indoor smoking prevents a tremendous risk that can be very easily avoided.

    Consider The Risks

    Living spaces in animal sanctuaries have a number of elements that are highly susceptible to fire, and ways that the risk of fire can be reduced:

    Heating Elements And Fans

    Many sanctuaries employ heating elements for residents who get too cold or have specific needs for their indoor living spaces. These range from less safe devices such as heating lamps to more safe devices such as ceramic heating panels or in-floor radiant heating. Glass bulb heat lamps are especially dangerous and should be avoided. You should never use a device with an exposed heating element if possible.

    Regardless of which system your sanctuary uses, you can prevent fires with these devices by first ensuring that they are securely installed and cannot be knocked over, and regularly cleaning them of any dust, cobwebs or straw, both on and around the device. Some residents like to pile up bedding or sleep against them; this would present a serious risk with many devices. Regularly check all wiring to ensure that no resident or rodent has access to them. It’s unacceptable for residents to ever be able to nibble on electrical wiring or parts, which could quickly end their life in addition to starting a fire. Anything that has frayed wiring or is operating strangely must be taken out of commission and replaced or repaired immediately.

    If you use water heaters or auto-waterers, regularly inspect them to ensure that they are not damaged, loose off their base, or acting strangely. Pigs have been especially known to knock auto-waterers off of their foundation, which with certain designs could create seriously dangerous situations.

    If you use insulation to keep your structures warm, you must regularly inspect it to ensure that it is not coming apart or falling down due to rodents or birds making homes in it. Consider sandwiching it between two layers of galvanized hardware cloth in order to both keep the insulation effective and prevent the loose material from becoming a fire risk.

    For cooling systems, ensure that residents do not have physical access to them or their electrical cords, and regularly check to ensure that they are operating normally, not getting too hot, and not producing any sparks or malfunctioning.

    Other Electrical Devices And Equipment

    All outlets in your structure should have constant use covers in order to prevent dust buildup as well as any possibility of an animal interacting with it. If possible, outlets and electrical switches should be installed far above any potential resident’s reach. You cannot have any exposed wiring that curious residents or rodents could have access to. All wiring should be encased in conduit and regularly checked to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with.

    Extension cord use should be avoided or seriously limited. Generally, you should never use an extension cord regularly in a living space. Every plug in a socket is a potential fire risk, and using an extension cord doubles that risk by doubling the number of sockets in use. While there is inherent risk involved when using extension cords, there are things you can do to avoid additional risk if you must use one. You can read more about this topic here. Never use a piece of electrical equipment that is malfunctioning or acting strangely inside a structure. Keep unused appliances unplugged.

    All of the lights in your structures should be encased in a cage so that if they were to break, the pieces would not fall to the ground. Consider switching your lighting to LEDs, which have a lower risk of fire in the case of breakage or power surge.

    If you employ power generators, ensure that these are placed in areas clear of flammable materials and are regularly maintained. Any flammable liquids should be kept in a secure location, preferably away from higher risk structures.

    If you are parking gas-driven tractors, mowers, or other vehicles in a structure, you must make sure that the vehicle exhausts are clear of leaves, grass, or other dried organic materials, which could cause fires to spark when the vehicle is started up.

    Bedding, Straw, And Hay

    Your structures must be regularly cleaned to prevent a buildup of dust or straw. All of these materials are highly combustible and would be unfortunately perfect quick-burning fuel should a spark strike them. While you cannot eliminate straw or wood shavings from most sanctuary environments, you can still minimize the risk they present. Regular dusting, especially near electrical areas, should be a part of your structure’s maintenance.

    If the hay that you bring into your sanctuary is baled while it is too wet, it can actually self-combust in storage with no outside influence due to the heat created by internal composting. You should moisture test your incoming hay to avoid this issue, particularly if hay is stored in resident living spaces. According to information from North Dakota State University, “Hay fires are a danger at any time in stacked small bales when the hay’s moisture content is 20 percent or higher, and in stacked big square or round bales when the hay’s moisture content is more than 16 percent.” If possible, create a separate structure far away from your residents for all hay to be stored. If you smell something odd in your hay area, especially a “sooty” smell, there is a high chance that one of the bales could be self-composting deeply within. Straw bales, luckily, do not present the same risk, but are still quite flammable and should be kept away from anything that could get hot or spark.

    Fire Safety Devices And Strategies

    If you use smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, make sure that they are frequently dusted or have the technology to accurately ignore dust (or only detect heat changes) in order to prevent false positives. They must also be regularly tested and have any backup batteries replaced. If you use fire alarms and sprinkler systems, these must be regularly maintained and checked as well. All structures must have accessible fire hoses or fire extinguishers (10 pound ABC extinguishers within 50 feet of anywhere in the structure is a good place to start). Extinguishers must be regularly checked and replaced on a schedule to ensure that they are effective. Your staff should be aware of how to effectively use these tools in case of an emergency!

    Should A Sanctuary Have Sprinklers In Their Structures?

    There are pros and cons of installing sprinklers in your structures. Any system that can quickly suppress a fire could save lives when an accident can turn lethal within a few minutes. Even the fastest response of an alert staff or fire department could still result in asphyxiation of residents caught in a smoky living space. However, there are also quite a few cons to balance: First, it can be highly expensive to establish a sprinkler system, with some reliable systems as expensive to install as the structures they protect. These systems need to have reliable water access, which may be expensive or prohibitive in many regions. Finally, there is a high risk of the sprinklers accidentally being set off due to false alarms or burst pipes in the wintertime for certain types of systems if not properly maintained for all conditions. If residents are accidentally drenched with water in a freezing structure in the wintertime, there could be a serious risk of living space-wide hypothermia that would need to be immediately treated, and the structure itself could be quickly ruined by a flood. You must balance these considerations when deciding whether a sprinkler system is right for any structure at your sanctuary.

    Lightning can also be a source of structure fires in sanctuaries. You can greatly reduce this danger with the use of a properly installed lightning rod and grounding wire on each of your structures.

    All exits should be clearly marked, and any pathways out of the structure should always be as clear as possible. Unnecessary clutter should be kept out of the structure where possible. If emergency vehicles need to get to your structure, ensure that they have a clear access path that they could quickly make their way to a fire. If necessary depending on your sanctuary’s location and water situation, consider creating a fire pond on your property that could be used in an emergency.

    Protect The Humans Too

    As critical as it is to keep your residents safe, it is equally important to ensure that the humans at your sanctuary are also safe. In the case of an emergency, they must know how to get out of an unsafe situation, where to go, and what to do next. This information should be known by anyone regularly spending time working at your sanctuary. You cannot risk human lives.

    Ask The Experts

    If you’re looking for more ways to fireproof your sanctuary, consider asking your local fire department to come out and review your property. They can help locate potential pitfalls and help you create effective fire prevention strategies. They would also be knowledgeable in the proper chemical mix for fire extinguishers for each structure on your property and can help train your staff on how to appropriately use them.

    Putting It Into Action

    Now that you’ve learned about how you can make your sanctuary safer, check out The Open Sanctuary Project’s free downloadable checklist to help review all of your structures for fire safety regularly!

    What Does 'Unacceptable' Mean?

    At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.


    Barn Fire Safety Checklist | National Fire Protection Association

    Barn Safety Expert Offers Fire Prevention Tips | East Coast Equestrian (Non-Compassionate Source)

    12 Ways To Fireproof Your Barn | Stable Management (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?

    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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