No one person or farm is immune to the threat of fire. The risk is something every farmer accepts but rarely plans for. This Oct. 9-15 marks Fire Prevention Week, and for farmers, it serves as a reminder that farm fire season is fast approaching. The occurrence of farm fires tends to increase during the winter – making the fall season the ideal time to assess your farm’s risks and implement a fire prevention plan.
The average value of today’s dairy farm – the barns, equipment and herd genetics – are higher than ever, making the potential losses and replacement value almost priceless. The good news is: New technology, preventative maintenance and proactive management are some of the best tools to reduce the risk of farm fires, and they are easy to implement.
Identify fire risks
In working with farmers to resolve electrical issues and serious fire risks, I’ve also been fortunate to work with some leading risk management professionals. We all agree prevention is the key to reducing your risk, and that includes maintenance, access to field expertise, working with a licensed electrician and regular inspections.
There’s never an ideal time to take stock of your farm’s fire risks, but barn fires don’t work around your schedule either. Here are my top seven fire prevention tips to consider this fall.
1. Maintain electrical systems
According to the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management, faulty electrical systems are the leading cause of preventable farm fires. The hardest part about maintaining your farm’s electrical system is you often can’t see the problem until it’s too late, but there are ways to work proactively.
For example, installing a system to monitor your farm’s electrical network can help eliminate the guesswork. There are many systems available in Canada to monitor your electrical system for faults and anomalies. These systems can also identify equipment and electrical fixtures like outlets, lights and motors that are compromised and showing early signs of a pending failure and potential ignition points.
Early fault detection and monitoring your farm’s electrical network is the first step to fire prevention and will certainly provide peace of mind, but the key to reducing electrical fires is prevention. In my experience, true prevention occurs when a problem is resolved – this means an electrical diagnostic, followed by corrective measures to prevent a serious issue, like a fire. Working with a licensed electrician is also key.
2. Install fire extinguishers
This tip seems straightforward, but a reminder never hurts. Make sure you have the proper-sized fire extinguishers throughout your barns and farm buildings; they should be easily accessible. It’s also important to make sure everyone who works in the barn knows where they are located and how to use them. Ensure the extinguishers are regularly inspected.
Fire extinguishers should also be attached to farm tractors and equipment because fire prevention doesn’t stop at the barn door.
3. Use block heaters and extension cords wisely
The use of portable heaters, extension cords and block heaters in tractors during winter months increases the risk of farm fires significantly. Even properly functioning block heaters can cause a fire if they are plugged into a cord with a poor connection caused by damaged receptacles, plug ends and wiring, old or worn cords, light-duty or damaged extension cords.
Before plugging in a block heater, examine the condition of the block heater plug and lead connection. Check for cracked or exposed wiring. Be sure to park tractors away from combustible materials and install battery cut-off switches to de-energize equipment when not in use to reduce the chances of an electrical fire. Never use old, damaged, light-gauge, coiled or multiple extension cords – they can be an ignition source.
4. Good housekeeping
Despite even the best cleaning routines, dairy barns can accumulate dust and debris, especially in an electrical system. Add cleaning out panel boxes and checking electrical outlets for debris to your regular cleaning list. Also, check for corrosion – dairy barns often use a lot of water, and power washing can introduce moisture into areas of an electrical system that can cause condensation to build up, leading to corrosion and an increased risk of electrical problems.
5. Work with your insurance company
You’re not alone when it comes to fire prevention. An obvious ally may be your insurance provider, especially if they have a loss prevention specialist on staff. These professionals have experience working with farmers to identify potential risks as part of an inspection process. They can provide advice on resolutions and proactive measures to address concerns. Meeting with your loss prevention specialist on a timely basis can be part of a regular maintenance plan.
6. Emergency planning
Prevention starts with planning. Develop an emergency preparedness plan for your farm that includes fire safety and prevention. Start with creating a map of your farm, identifying fuel sources, farm entryways, barn and building exits, and possible water sources for emergency responders. Create a list of people and neighbours to call on in the event of a fire. Include contacts who can bring a livestock trailer or provide emergency animal housing. Add emergency preparedness to your employee training and share your plan with your local fire department so they can be prepared to help you if necessary.
If you’re planning a new barn build or expansion, incorporate fire safety and prevention into its construction. Include fire separation and suppression into your building plans and electrical system monitoring to reduce risk factors. Consider including electricians and insurance loss prevention professionals in the design process to ensure you are adopting the best fire prevention tools and technology available.
7. Upgrade plugs and receptacles
While you’re conducting your regular inspections and maintenance, be sure to check for corrosion in common areas like equipment, panel boxes, electrical outlets and plugs. Corrosion is common in dairy barns and causes serious problems like exposing copper connectors. The use of regular plug ends, especially in highly corrosive areas of a barn, is a leading cause of electrical barn fires. Consider upgrading your plugs and receptacles with NEMA 4X waterproof and corrosion-
resistant plugs and receptacles. These plugs have a waterproof seal and are made of corrosion-resistant metal blends ideal for barn equipment like fans, motors and ceiling outlets.
Farm fires are serious and can be devastating. Your farm’s best defense starts with you – make time to talk to family and employees about the importance of these fire prevention tips, implement regular preventative maintenance and engage professionals to assist you.