Author(s): Tracy Vecchiarelli. Published on May 1, 2012.


Sprinklered Menagerie?
The discussion of NFPA 150 in Las Vegas will include a move to require sprinklers in all animal housing facilities — and it’s ruffling the fur of opponents concerned about cost

NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012

By Tracy Golinveaux

In 1995, on the day before Christmas, six gorillas, three orangutans, four gibbons, and ten lemurs died in a fire at the Philadelphia Zoo. The exhibit was not sprinklered; it did have three smoke alarms, but they were not heard by the security guards on duty. The exhibit was rebuilt in 1999 with sprinklers, along with smoke, heat, and carbon monoxide detectors.



NFPA's Tracy Golinveaux talks about the evolving history of the NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities.

The zoo blaze was my first experience with fire loss. Every year, my family had celebrated the day after Thanksgiving by going to the zoo to watch the gorillas. I was eight, just old enough to understand what had happened to my “friends,” and I was devastated. Now I work at NFPA, and one of my responsibilities is to work with the Technical Committee on Animal Housing. During my first cycle working with the technical committee, they received a proposal to require sprinklers in all animal housing facilities. When I thought about the discussions that would arise out of that proposal, I knew I’d picked the right job.

While there are good arguments to be made for protecting animals in this manner, the discussion is anything but one-dimensional. The debate over sprinklers in animal housing facilities is similar to that over sprinklering one- and two-family dwellings and revolves around the issue of cost. One side argues that cost should not be an issue when it comes to saving lives, including animal lives. The other says cost may put undue burdens on the people or organizations that keep those animals, such as ranch owners who may already be struggling economically. This debate will be brought to the NFPA Association Technical Meeting in Las Vegas in June. A certified amending motion (CAM) to require all animal housing facilities — zoos, barns, poultry farms, animal testing laboratories, pet shops, and more — to be sprinklered will be presented and voted on by the NFPA membership.


A sampling of animal housing facility fires in 2012, from published reports

January 7
Lethbridge, Alberta
21,000 chicks die in a barn fire. The cause is under investigation.

January 10
Malahide Township, Ontario
500 pigs die in an electrical fire. January 21 
Lafayette, New York
22 show horses, valued at $10,000 to $60,000 each, perish in a barn fire. The cause of the fire is unknown. February 15 
Buchanan, Michigan
80 cows and 20 calves die in a fire at a dairy farm. The cause has not been determined. February 20 
Rowan County, North Carolina
9 dogs die from smoke inhalation in a fire that started in the attic of an animal clinic. February 26 
Minneapolis, Minnesota
A heat lamp starts a fire in a chicken coop. All 5 chickens are rescued.

March 4
Montville Township, Ohio
250 pigs and an unknown number of goats and sheep are killed in a barn fire. The cause of the fire is unknown.

March 6 
Ellenburg, New York
110 dairy cows are killed in an electrical fire at a farm.

‘Staggering losses’
The 2009 edition of NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities, requires sprinklers in facilities housing Category A animals, which are defined as those that are dangerous or cannot easily be moved, such as bears, elephants, or poisonous reptiles. All other animals are considered Category B animals. The CAM seeks to expand the sprinklering requirements to include Category B animals as follows:

“9.8.1 Sprinkler Systems. Animal housing facilities with Category A animals or Category B animals shall be sprinklered throughout in accordance with Section 9.2.”

Sprinklering requirements were not always based on animal categories. In 1979, the first edition of NFPA 150 was created in response to a series of disastrous racetrack stable fires. This edition was intended primarily for stables, and sprinklering requirements were based on the construction type, area, and number of horse stalls in the facility. In 2004, the document was revised and expanded to include life and fire safety requirements in all animal housing facilities, not just stables. NFPA 150 now applies to any structure that houses animals, ranging from scientific research facilities to pet stores, zoos, and barns. The current standard is referenced by NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, and has been adopted in many jurisdictions.

Fires in all types of animal housing facilities in the U.S., including barns, have declined steadily for three decades, according to NFPA statistics, from more than 14,000 reported structure fires in 1980 down to about 740 in 2010, with an average of around 800 such fires a year since 2005. Direct property damage in recent years has averaged around $30 million annually, or about $40,000 per fire.

Despite the decline in the number of fires, the losses of animals can be every bit as staggering today as they were decades ago [see “Animals at Risk,” previous page]. According to Laurie Loveman, who runs the advocacy website, six separate fires in April 2011 alone killed eight lambs, 20 cattle, 31 horses, and 300,000 chickens. Her records for the year include information on more than 80 fires that killed 200 horses, 850 cattle, 15,000 sheep, 461,000 chickens, and 18,500 other fowl. Sprinkler proponents cite numbers like these as part of their argument for requiring sprinkler systems in all animal housing facilities, and as part of a larger call for the humane treatment of all commercially-raised animals.

At the same time, others argue against sprinkler systems because of the cost; some frame the question as to whether it’s cheaper to replace animals lost to fire or to protect them with sprinklers, while others point to inspections, training, and education as cost-effective alternatives to sprinklers. Opponents also point out that installing a sprinkler system in an animal housing facility is not as easy as it might be in residential-type occupancies. Facilities exposed to freezing conditions may require dry pipe systems, and poor water supplies may require water storage and pumps, elements that can add significantly to the cost of installing sprinklers.

Performance approach: Touring the National Zoo
NFPA 150 already recognizes a wide range of animal housing facilities, from cattle farms to pet shops, and that flexibility will only increase in the 2013 edition with the inclusion of a new chapter on performance-based designs. This chapter will be similar to the chapters added to documents such as NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000 and will allow designers to create fire protection plans that will work for specific animal safety concerns. While sprinkler systems can certainly help protect animal housing facilities, detection, alarms, and smoke control systems are also worth considering as part of a complete fire protection plan for animals, and the new chapter will provide guidelines for integrating these kinds of features into new or unconventional protection plans. It will also give designers more flexibility when working towards other goals like sustainability.

The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. has already adopted this performance-based approach. The zoo is home to about 2,000 animals, from insects to elephants, and the zoo’s engineers have designed fire protection systems to meet the unique safety requirements of 400 different species.

In March 2011 I accompanied the technical committee on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the zoo’s innovative protection systems. Among our stops was the Amazonia exhibit, which features an indoor rainforest. Open to the “rainforest” is a 55,000-gallon (208,197-liter) aquarium displaying fish from the Amazon river. These fish are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment, including pH levels and water temperature. If a sprinkler system were to discharge city water into their tank, the fish would die. Engineers designed a sprinkler system that would not discharge water into the tanks.

In the Great Ape House, animal handlers recognized that the sound of fire alarms caused the primates to panic; they could become so distraught that they risked injuring themselves trying to escape the sound. The zoo’s fire protection engineers and animal handlers worked together to develop a solution that would be safe for both the animals and their human minders. They developed an alarm system that uses flashing red lights instead of loud alarm bells. The lights alert the staff working in the exhibit of the fire, but do not cause the primates to panic. The detection systems that set off the lights are also connected to alarm panels that display locations of fire events.

The zoo must protect the animals from fire, and it must also protect fire protection systems from the animals. Elephants, for example, are known for their dexterous and curious trunks, which can easily hold and manipulate paintbrushes and even pick up small coins from flat surfaces. In the elephant exhibit at the zoo, I noticed that the sprinkler piping was covered with metal enclosures and that there were cages around the sprinklers. As it turns out, elephants can also unscrew sprinklers and pull down the piping.

 As the National Zoo so creatively demonstrates, animals and humans have similar needs when it comes to protection from fire. Like humans, animals have the instinct to flee when threatened with fire conditions, but they are typically restrained by cages, fences, or other barriers in animal housing facilities. It’s this aspect that makes NFPA 150 so important, and the Technical Committee on Animal Housing will continue to work towards a solution to help create environments that are both safe and cost-effective for animal housing facilities.

Tracy Golinveaux is an associate fire protection engineer at NFPA.