Fire: the greatest threat to your farming operation

Firefighting is not complicated, but managing the process, which includes prevention, training, communication, maintaining equipment and more, is another story. It requires minute attention to detail, says Peter Hughes.

Fire: the greatest threat to your farming operation
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Imagine the scenario: the New Hope Farm guard on night patrol was clocking in on the tracking system when he heard a crackling noise and noticed a glow coming from under the packhouse door. Looking through the window, he saw sparks coming from wiring near the control panel.

Quickly pulling out his phone, he speed-dialled the duty manager and was immediately answered by a sleepy voice.

The duty manager’s phone had been programmed to speed-dial the security officer, the fire-duty driver and the doctor. While putting on a pair of shorts, he called up the fire-duty driver, and as he walked out of his front door minutes later, he heard the fire tender speeding down the road.

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At the packhouse, he found that the guard had opened up, and the fire-duty driver, trained to deal with different types of fire, had decided that a blast from a fire extinguisher was all that was needed. In minutes it was all over, with very little damage done, and back to bed they all went.

A disaster waiting to happen
Now imagine this scenario: at No Hope Farm, a similar situation had developed a few weeks later, but with a very different outcome.

The night patrol check-in system in this case was not operating, and the night guard had taken the opportunity to have a snooze in a warm spot in the corner of the packhouse. He was woken by the smell of smoke, saw a blaze developing next to the control unit, and scrambled to give the alarm.

With the fire fast gaining impetus, the guard panicked and couldn’t remember which manager was on duty. Eventually, he found his copy of the fire-duty roster, and, despite the darkness and smoke, managed to dial the right number and woke the duty manager.

The latter in turn quickly woke the fire-duty driver, but in contrast to New Hope Farm, where the firetender is always parked next to the duty-driver’s house, this tender was in the tractor shed.

When the duty-driver arrived there, it was locked. He had no key, but managed to smash the lock. Trying to start the tractor, he found he had the wrong key, but being an enterprising employee, he quickly hot-wired the tractor and drove to the packhouse. By then, the fire was burning furiously.

Unrolling the fire tender hose, he engaged the PTO to get the pump going, and started dousing the fire. Just as he was starting to make progress against the flames, the water flow stopped. A panic-stricken look into the tender’s tank confirmed his worst fears: it was empty.

A constant lurking danger
Need I say more? I’m sure that you’ve got the picture by now. Without any doubt whatsoever, every manager in his or her farming career will have to deal with a fire at some stage. And fire, like acarefully planned ambush, will always have the element of surprise on its side.Often, this means starting at a time least expected, at night, over weekends, or during holidays.

The systems and techniques of fire prevention and fighting have been developed over many years all over the world. They are not rocket science. But their application and management is far more complex.

No matter how well understood fires are, without trained staff, quick detection, a high-speed reaction, and the right tools and equipment to deal with them, they will continue to cause havoc.

Maintaining an effective fire protection and fighting unit or team on the farm is one of management’s toughest jobs.

Here’s how New Hope does it.

  • A senior manager takes on the role of ‘fire-risk manager’.
  • An annual fire-risk meeting is held before the onset of the fire-season.
  • All fire protection tasks such as firebreaks, checking fire extinguishers and training are identified, and checklists and rosters prepared.
  • Every Friday afternoon, the fire duty team meets and physically practises the fire drill.
  • Contact details of guards, duty drivers and managers are confirmed and programmed to speed-dial on all phones.
  • If any special high-risk areas exist for the week ahead, all staff are informed.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.