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Dealing with fires, twisters and explosions

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Iowa veterinarian shares insight on how to get through a catastrophe.

Insurance companies can give you the numbers — it doesn't happen often — but when a catastrophe happens to your farm, Cameron Schmitt says you need to be ready. Tornadoes, fires, pit gas explosions and power outages — many pork producers may think these disasters will never happen to them. However, Schmitt says producers should keep Murphy's law in mind.

"There is a reason for backup systems," Schmitt says. "We train and test them every week, and as boring as it is, they are important. It may save your pigs, people and farm someday."

Since joining Pipestone Veterinary Services and Pipestone System in 2002, the veterinarian has had to help several farms pick up the pieces after a catastrophe. While Schmitt says every situation will be different, there are some important considerations production teams should consider when dealing with a disaster.

In April 2011, tornadoes ripped through north-central Iowa damaging some barns that Schmitt works with. Roofs had been torn off the facilities, leaving animals behind. Driving up to the sites and seeing pigs safe, standing there as if they still had a roof over their heads was a strange site to see, Schmitt says, but for the pork production team it was a devastating scene to take in.

"For these young farmers, these barns are an integral part of their life," Schmitt says. "You become a disaster relief counselor and recovery team lead for families as well as pigs."

Following a tornado, there are some key action items to implement and evaluate immediately, Schmitt says:

Human safety. Driving to a farm after a tornado can be treacherous. With steel and metal debris everywhere, it's important to consider equipment and employee safety, in addition to the herd's safety. Determine a "safe zone" of operation early on. Work with your emergency service teams to evaluate when it is safe.

Event documentation. It's crucial the farm's veterinarian is on-site to document and take a complete set of photos of the damage. Schmitt also points out that insurance companies will turn to the veterinarian for record of the damage details of the incident.

Daily records. Keep good records, every day. In the event of disaster, they will come in handy.

"Date, time, number, weight, age — any records on-farm that you can take a picture of — even the mortality or the daily recorded mortality logs, water usage — all those factors may become an important fact weeks or months later as an investigation goes on," Schmitt says.

Within hours of a disaster, Schmitt says reality starts to set in. Where do we go with the living pigs? Health status, marketing options and medication withdrawals need to be considered. Sunburns can occur fairly rapidly on a barn without a roof, and that is not an everyday vet call.

What should be done with the injured animals? How are animals loaded when there is no barn left? Those were all questions Schmitt says he was forced to address and often didn't have answers to, but he learned to slow down, gather information and take time to make decisions.

"Having a fire is one of the most devastating experiences a farmer can go through," Schmitt says.

He suggests producers make an effort to give local fire crews tours of their barns. Then they will be familiar with that site's firewalls and barn design, and be able to make educated decisions if they need to fight a fire there.

It's also important to recognize that fires have a particularly devastating effect on employees. People who care for the animals are so compassionate, they feel the loss of life as if it was their own, Schmitt says. Recovery is challenging and needs to be addressed by owners and managers to keep everyone going emotionally.

"When you have 10 employees and tomorrow their job is gone, what do you do?" Schmitt says. "Do you let them go, fire them, temporarily relieve them, move them to other farms? How do you manage biosecurity? All of those things are real issues that don't cross my radar on a normal day as a veterinarian."

Crisis management plans will help relieve the stress of "not knowing" for employees and owners.

At the time of any disaster involving loss of life (pigs or people), Schmitt says it's also important to manage the public, media, site traffic and site perimeter. Producers need to have trained, experienced people on-site to manage what could create untruths — or, as he says, a "rumor mill" — that could potentially be dangerous to the farm and its employees. It's critical to speak truths in a timely, respectful fashion.

State pork associations, consultants and veterinarians can help producers design a plan to deal with adverse events.

During the cleanup process, be prepared to meet with several investigators, Schmitt says, especially when insurance companies are dealing with a loss of $1 million or more. The veterinarian says producers also need to be cognizant of subrogation claims and their liability. Consult an expert if needed.

"In this situation, a contractor working on-site had cut a hole in a steel-end wall, creating heat, and left for the day. Two hours later, the farm was on fire. Be aware of, and take all safety precautions with, construction and maintenance; it may save someone's life," Schmitt says.

Power failure
Schmitt calls a power failure a "midsummer disease of pig farms," as that is generally when it happens. There can be more mortalities due to the heat stress in pigs.

Schmitt reiterates the importance of backup devices and alarms. Set a routine alarm and backup checklist, with dates and initials of inspection recorded. This information will be requested by the insurance company.

Flash fires
Flash fires are caused by a pit foam release of methane that inadvertently ignites, an incident Schmitt says most often occurs in an empty barn. Last year, the Pipestone team had a client who ended up having more than 60% of his body burned, due to a flash fire caused by a pit foam release of methane. It's important to follow strict protocols when pit foam is a factor in the barn, and never work alone.

"Flash fires most commonly occur in empty barns because there's nothing continually dropping down into the pit, and it allows foam to occur," Schmitt says.

Schmitt has been involved with one flash fire where pigs were in the barn, but very few animals were lost in the event. However, the veterinarian says it is important for producers to remember to take extra precautions during times when barns are empty. Pit gases and foam can be very dangerous.

Time to decompress
No matter when or what type of disaster strikes, Schmitt says it is essential that every production team and family take time to deal with it emotionally. He encourages producers and veterinarians who experience a disaster to reach out to friends and family, and give support to other team members. Likewise, reach out to friends and families experiencing hardship, as you may be the shoulder they need today.

"After you go through one of these high-stress events, you need to be able to relax and reflect," Schmitt says. "When you have one of these catastrophic events, usually you're going to spend 10 to 20 hours at the site, possibly for days.

"If you haven't been through them before, you’ve got to be tough and call on your support team to get through it. They aren't any fun, but you have to find a way to decompress. Find the 'glass half full' side of the event, spend time reflecting, improving — and get started again."

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