On a recent trip to Calgary I read an article in The Globe and Mail. It was written by Patrick White and drew attention to the thousands of animals who die in barn fires every year in Manitoba. According to the article, over 31,000 animals died in 2008 which is more than eight times the number that died in 2007! This year is going to be even worse as over 30,900 animals have already perished. Why the sudden increase in barn fires? It seems that building codes have not kept up with current agricultural practices. Sprinklers, smoke alarms, fire walls and flame-retardant materials are not required in barns. Once a fire starts in a facility with a concentrated population of animals, the losses are catastrophic.
The article went on to describe how traumatic these fires are for the firefighters who hear the animal screams. Screams of pain and agony that unnerve even the most seasoned veterans. In fact, many rural Manitoba firefighters sought counseling to deal with their experiences. I sympathize with how these brave men and women feel. I have walked into a barn and also a kennel after a fire. They were both awful experiences that I will never forget!
So why hasn’t Manitoba’s building code been updated to address confinement agriculture? Because farm lobbyists like Ian Wishart are fighting it. Here’s his opinion on the matter as reported in the paper, “Some of these recommendations would be far too expensive and are not going to work anyway.” Honestly, I cannot understand this man’s logic. How can loosing an entire barn full of animals be less expensive than installing sprinklers and other safety measures? His words remind me of the old lawyer saw: If you have the law, argue the law. If you have the facts, argue the facts. If you don’t have either, just argue, argue, argue.
In contrast to lobbyists like Mr. Wishart who work to defeat and delay meaningful building code updates, I suggest another approach. The companies who insure these large animal operations should require smoke alarms, sprinklers and other fire prevention measures as a condition of an insurance policy. Since most of the fires are caused by lack of maintenance, overloading circuits and faulty mechanical systems, I would also recommend a thorough inspection by an insurance representative trained to spot these problems. Any farm that does not meet the new standards would lose their insurance or have their premiums increased significantly to cover the added risk to the insurance company. The farmers who have already implemented these life-shaving measures could be rewarded with lower premiums.
In closing, I want to encourage local governments in Canada, the United States and other countries to review their building codes for animal structures. Outdated codes should be replaced with new regulations that reflect current agricultural practices. Long term, it will be a win for everyone; farmers, insurance companies, firefighters and the animals.
Reference: White, Patrick, ‘Barn blazes turn up heat on building codes, Scenes of dying animals have become disturbingly common for firefighters in Manitoba, where regulations fail to reflect modern farms’, The Globe and Mail, Friday, July 10, 2009.