Unsafe stables?

More than a month after the Fair Hill fire that killed 24 horses, the debate centers on smoke detectors, sensors and sprinklers.

Horse Racing


The fatalistic view Dennis Bybee heard after losing a horse in the Nov. 1 barn fire at the Fair Hill training center probably didn't offer him much comfort. And that outlook certainly doesn't offer any hope for those who want to guard against a similar accident.

"It seems everyone thinks, `That's the way it is,'" Bybee, owner of Virginia Bidder, said by phone last month from his Virginia office, referring to the lack of fire safety measures for the animals at Fair Hill. "And maybe that's the way it is. But one thing is sure: If the barn owners let this go by and just say, `That's the way it is,' then it will be the way it is."

Barn fires are among the biggest worries horsemen face. A barn is often built of wood and even when it is built of more fire-resistant material, like concrete and fire-treated wood, it provides all the ingredients necessary for a roaring fire. Fuel in the form of hay, straw and feed, and oxygen from the many doors and windows provided to give the stabled horses good cross ventilation are readily available.

At Fair Hill in Cecil County, where 24 horses died in the Nov. 1 fire, there was neither a fire warning system in place nor a sprinkler system. But neither is required in a horse barn.

"In Maryland, there are no codes to protect animals from a life safety standpoint," said W. Faron Taylor, a deputy state fire marshal. "We do make sure there is adequate exiting for humans to be able to safely escape."

It may seem shortsighted and even cruel, but Glen Kozak, the facilities superintendent at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the Bowie Training Center, said: "How many private homes have sprinkler systems? If it's not yet being required in dwellings for humans, it's going to take a long time for barn safety to catch up."

Still, the lack of safeguards at Fair Hill surprised many in the racing industry.

Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, said: "Fair Hill is recognized as a first-class training establishment. I admit I was surprised."

Bybee said he hadn't thought to question the safety arrangements.

"Did I ask if they had sprinklers or fire alarms?" Bybee said, repeating the question. "No. But I wasn't boarding my horse in a down-and-out establishment for 50 bucks a month. If you pay $2,500 a month to board your horse, you don't expect it to burn up in a fire. You expect there to be provisions for its safety."

But Fair Hill - operated on state-owned land - wasn't in violation of any regulations.

Robert Polk, the senior policy adviser to the National Association of State Fire Marshals, said the model International Building Code generally does not address barns and stables, and he didn't know of any states that require fire protection for farm animals.

But there are national fire safety standards for stables at racetracks. The National Fire Prevention Association's Standard 150, for instance, requires optical smoke detectors or heat detectors, overhead sprinklers and fire alarms.

At Laurel Park, Raffetto said there have been false alarms, including one that set off the sprinkler system.

"But for the most part," he said, "our fire precautions have produced a good record."

At Fair Hill, the training center's manager, Sally Goswell, said the facility's board of directors met with fire officials a week after the fire to discuss what can be done to further fire safety.

Trainer Bruce Jackson, who owned the wooden barn that burned, said: "We're going to rebuild the barn. And I'm trying to gather all the information I can on new products and their effectiveness against fires."

The Maryland State Fire Marshal's office has determined the fire started in a feed area, but a cause for the fire has not yet been uncovered.

The morning after the fire, resulting in losses estimated at $1.8 million in livestock, buildings and contents, training center officials said fire alarms don't work and sprinkler systems are too expensive at a site not serviced by a public water supply.

Dr. Katherine Anderson, the treating veterinarian at Fair Hill and president of the Fair Hill Condominium Association, said a sprinkler system in the barn probably would not have put out the fire "and would have only extended the suffering of the animals." But Wayne Wright, executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said four fires have started in barns at Pimlico, Laurel (two) and Bowie over the past 30 years and, in each instance, the sprinkler systems put them out and saved the lives of horses.

"We are very sensitive to fire," Wright said. "All our [wooden] barns are sprinklered, and when they go off it's not a drizzle. When it goes off, you're engulfed in water. It's easy to say they won't work, but those old wooden barns at Pimlico would have been a tinderbox without the sprinkler system."

According to Polk, there are fire detectors that can make some difference in a barn fire, like heat-sensitive monitors and sprinkler systems that can be connected to wells and/or ponds.

Polk said the technology to protect barns from fire does exist, and the cost has to be weighed against the potential for loss.

"Losing 24 thoroughbreds is a pretty costly proposition," he said. "It's an economic decision the owner would have to make."

Goswell, Fair Hill's manager, said fire safety and security issues have been brought up "over and over again" at the training center. Always, the stumbling block has been cost effectiveness.

But that was before those 24 horses died.


Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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