Take steps to stop fires before they start

As too many livestock producers have recently discovered, fire can be damaging in the short-term of loss of buildings and livestock, but also in the long-term disruption of production.

Mike Keenan is senior ag safety and loss control consultant with Gallagher Grace/Mayer in Omaha, Neb., an insurance broker offering risk management and business solutions to clients, and he tries to help producers make and keep their facilities at low risk for loss from fire.

“The main thing we’re looking at is isolating each barn unto itself, or if it’s a big barn to divide the barn up to eliminate the exposure to one barn or part of a barn if there is a fire,” he says. “Then we also take a very strong approach at prevention by limiting where we put combustibles or ignition sources to make the barn as non-combustible as possible. We try to minimize the exposure by removing them from the animal housing space.”

Keenan points to research by their firm and the industry, in addition to the claims they have had over the years, and “the things that really become high risk are the power washers, generators and utility rooms.” It is recommended that producers isolate these “high-risk” utilities from the animal housing space, but that can be taken too far. “We have seen producers who put their power washer and generator all in the utility room, but if you do have a fire, then you lose all if it.”

More producers are going with standalone generators and power washers, where the units are actually located outside of the barn, so that if the generator would start a fire, the barn would be spared. Keenan has also seen some hog farms going with cold water pressure washers, thus eliminating the heat source.

Clothes dryers are also seen as a fire risk in hog barns, as more and more hog barns have the appliance installed to have laundry of work clothes done on site in the name of biosecurity. But, just as with the clothes dryer in the family’s home, the workers in the farm barn need to be sure the dryer vent is cleaned and maintained. “Employees will get done for the day, and throw the clothes in the dryer and leave, if there is a fire there is no one around to notice,” he says.

Electrical problems are common sources of fires in hog barns, and Keenan says it is important to isolate electrical panels, to get them out of the barn space and into a hallway or office into drier and cleaner air. “Pit gases are corrosive to the panels and when you see those corroded panels there is a good chance of electrical fires. They get corroded and the breaker won’t trip if there is an overload and then you can get a fire,” he says.

Keenan says his firm offers clients a glimpse inside the electrical system of their barns to see if they are facing hidden dangers. Thermographic imaging cameras are used within their clients’ buildings every two years to look at what cannot be seen by the naked eye. “We do it both on behalf of our clients, as well as for the insurance companies that we work with,” he says.

A producer can look at an electrical panel, and even feel the surface of the breakers, and though it may feel a little warm to the touch, they may think it’s OK. “This camera shows where the hot spots are, and even will show what the actual temperature may be at any spot inside the panel,” he says.

As a result of using the thermographic imaging, Keenan says they now recommend that producers hard wire heat lamps, rather than plugging heat lamps in a standard heat lamp outlet. “We saw a lot of potential fire risk at overheated outlets,” he notes.

In the event of a fire, fire doors and fire walls can go a long way in keeping a bad situation from getting worse, and are just some of the recommendations that Keenan makes to producers.

“We make a lot of suggestions as to what producers should do to make their barns fire safe, but it’s a matter of cost for implementation,” says Tim Healy, an account executive also with Gallagher Grace/Mayer. “Nowadays most everyone knows someone who has had a fire, or have had a fire themselves, so producers are trying to do as much as they can to make their barns at lower risk.”

Both Healy and Keenan have seen the long-lasting impact a fire can have on a swine production facility, far beyond the loss of structures and animals. “We saw one facility where the office and load outs and chute were in the middle of a farrowing barn, and that’s where the fire occurred,” Keenan said. “That farm lost two farrowing rooms on either side of the load out area, so they lost four of the 12 farrowing rooms, but they had to cull the entire herd due to smoke inhalation and inability to access the remaining farrowing rooms.”

Keenan says the rebuild of the facility took a couple months, but due to the culling of the sow herd, it was 18 months before the farm was back to full operations. “That business interruption in a lot of cases outweighs the cost of construction, livestock and the property loss,” he says.

In addition to making a facility as fire-safe as possible, Keenan says employee training can go a long way in fire prevention. “If everyone is on the same page as far as good practices, and to just have them watch what is going on is important to keep a farm safe.”

Healy and Keenan agree that the Gourley Premium Pork facility, built mainly out of concrete, is a good example of a “fabulous” facility from a fire risk standpoint.”

“There are some who balk at our suggestions,” Healy says, “but there is getting to be a greater acceptance to help make their buildings at low risk for fire. … when you look at the full annual premium (of the Gourley facility) compared to the cost of the facility, the annual insurance savings is a smaller percentage, however the Gourleys intend to raise hogs there for many years to come, so that savings is reoccurring.”

As with any insurance, fire insurance is purchased in the hopes of never needing to file a claim, and producers can do a lot to lessen the risk of loss from fire. Healy says, “If you have a fire, you will have wished that you would have spent the money” to implement some of the fire preventive measures. “It’s easy to say you should have done it.”

For more information, contact Keenan at [email protected] or Tim Healy at (800) 279-2081 or [email protected].

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