ST. CLOUD, Minnesota––19,000 four-week-old turkeys were killed in a January 19, 2015 barn fire at a Jennie-O complex in Swanville.
The fire, of unknown origin, came three weeks after passer-by Wyatt Stueven, 17, was recognized by CBS-Minnesota for helping to rescue four horses from a barn fire in Chatham Township, Minnesota.
While the Chatham Township fire caused relatively few animal deaths, it further underscored the vulnerability of animals of every species to fires, while fire codes continue to exempt animal facilities from safety requirements pertaining to almost every other workplace.
“A trail of charred barns”
“Fires roaring through Minnesota farms this year have left a trail of charred barns and more than 44,000 animal carcasses,” recounted Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Maya Rao. “In December 2014, 7,500 turkeys perished in a fire near Worthington,” along with about 200 pigs at a rendering plant in Newbry Township.
Earlier in 2014, Rao remembered, “300,000 hens perished in La Grange, Wisconsin, in a winter fire that was the largest the town’s fire chief had ever fought; 150,000 hens died in a Galt, Iowa, fire; and a blaze that consumed 13,000 pigs near Truman, Minnesota, in October 2014 was the worst that a consultant for the state’s Board of Animal Health had come across in his 40 years on the job.”
Counting barns but not animals
Rao found that Minnesota state records document only the numbers of farm buildings that burn each year: a recent high of more than 200 in 2006, and more in 2013 than 2014.
National Fire Protection Association data shows that firefighters respond to about 830 barn fires per year in the U.S., doing $28 million worth of damage.
Founded in 1896, the NFPA publishes and frequently updates fire safety standards used by insurance underwriters and often written into building codes.
But those standards continue to neglect animals.
New NFPA standards
Long concerned about barn fires, National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs member and equine veterinarian Rebecca Gimenez on December 30, 2014 alerted other members of her Facebook page “Large Animal Technical Rescue” that, “The NFPA is currently in the process of drafting a proposed NFPA Standard (NFPA 1616) that ‘shall establish a common set of criteria for mass evacuation, sheltering and re-entry.’”
Comments on NFPA 1616 were due on January 5, 2015.
“This proposed standard,” Gimenez wrote, “includes recommendations for household pet and service animal evacuation, sheltering and general support during a disaster.”
Gimenez hoped that an effective update of NFPA 1616 might help to build momentum for better protecting barns and other livestock facilities from fire, which might be done through a pending redraft of NFPA 150, Standard of Fire & Fire Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities. Gimenez is also serving on the committee that started work on the NFPA 150 redraft at an October 2014 meeting of stakeholders in Baltimore.
Scope falls short
But Gimenez noted that the scope of the proposed NFPA 1616 fell far short of the necessary.
“The National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs board of directors and several key partners have reviewed the current draft document for NFPA 1616,” Gimenez wrote, “and are concerned that the proposed standard as it is currently drafted is limiting to local emergency planners in its definition of animals who require emergency sheltering, uses several outdated definitions for household pets and service animals, and requires broad expansion in several subject areas in order to accurately and adequately address the needs of animal emergency planners and the whole community for the evacuation and sheltering of animals in disaster.”
Translation: NFPA 1616 continues to overlook the needs of animals with hooves and wings. And if even equines kept as pets and backyard hen flocks who all have cute names are overlooked in fire safety standards, what chance do animals have whose only identity is as production units?
Gimenez was optimistic in an October 17, 2014 e-mail to ANIMALS 24-7 about the Baltimore meeting.
“Expanding NFPA 150 to require automatic fire sprinkler and smoke control systems in all new Category B animal housing facilities was the focus of this meeting; previously, appeals by Humane Society of the U.S., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and United Poultry Concerns to the NFPA Standards Council about this rule were rejected in August. The discussion was thorough and at times heated,” Gimenez said.
“It was realized by everyone in the room that at the current time that there are limitations in technology, and conflicts between rules. For example: USDA rules limiting use of animals for food that may have been exposed to smoke need to be addressed before a blanket expansion of the scope of NFPA 150 is approved.”
Open questions, Gimenez explained, included, “If chickens are sprinklered to stop a fire, will they become hypothermic and die even more slowly? Asphyxiation from smoke inhalation is a hell of a way to go and painful––but at least it is quick. How would they be evacuated and to where? If not evacuated, how long to provide mass euthanasia?”
“In the end, the proposals [to require sprinkler systems and other fire safety controls] were rejected,” Gimenez wrote, “and the next edition of NFPA 150 will not include that expansion. However, moving forward into the next revision of the document, a committee was designated to research fires that affect animal facilities,” to report back to the NFPA 150 revision committee by March 2015.
“Another committee,” Gimenez added, “will take a look at better defining animal facilities instead of Class A (zoos & exotics) and Class B, then horses, by breaking them out separately. This should expand the scope of the NFPA 150 into the future by better defining which animal facilities will require sprinklers, automatic smoke protection or evacuation planning.”
Sprinklers also rejected in 2013
The National Fire Protection Association in 2012 proposed an amendment to the 2013 edition of NFPA 150 which would have required all newly-built farmed animal housing facilities to have both sprinklers and smoke control systems.
“The NFPA already requires sprinklers in facilities housing animals like bears and elephants who can’t be easily moved,” observed Chicago-based health writer Martha Rosenberg. “But 15 big ag groups including the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers, and cattle, pork, and dairy producers appealed against the NFPA proposal and it was scrapped. The reason? Animals’ lives are not worth the cost, says big ag.”
Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, alleged that installing the NFPA-recommended fire protection systems would bring “staggering costs in the billions of dollars,” said that many farms lack “sufficient water supply available to service an automated sprinkler system,” and even that installing such systems and “the sprinkler water itself” would spread disease, Rosenberg recalled.
28 years of waiting
In truth, the existing water supply system serving the animals at any farm could double as a sprinkler system just by adding heat-sensitive sprinkler heads. No more water would be needed than the water already in the supply lines.
“The real issues are far more legitimate than that,” Gimenez told ANIMALS 24-7. “The emphasis from the entire committee [in Baltimore] was actually very focused on animal welfare ––on how can we can prevent fires in the first place and make sure that there are minimal ignition sources and things that can burn in these facilities, so that animals don’t die. The [agribusiness representatives] really were not fighting our efforts; they were trying to figure it out from all sides.”
But 28 years after the editor of ANIMALS 24-7 first presented investigative findings about the extent of animal casualties in barn fires to leading agricultural insurers and the NFPA, the pace of response still looks from here like agribusiness playing the bull fiddle while animals burn.