Jan
10
2007

Three dogs were killed and many others injured by a smouldering fire at Best Friends Kennel in Wheat Ridge, Colo., that occurred in the early morning hours on Jan. 1, 2007. The facility did not have centrally-monitored smoke/fire alarms or a sprinkler system, safety measures not required by fire codes. The fire burned for many hours, fire fighters said.

The question of whether to invest in alarms and sprinkler systems, sometimes costly measures that save lives and may lessen insurance premiums, is a hot-button issue for veterinary facilities across the United States and Canada. As competition increases for pet medical and boarding services, the safety measures could become a marketing asset, professionals said.

The kennel tragedy, which claimed the life of an AAHA staff member’s dog, illustrates the importance of centrally-monitored fire and smoke alarms in veterinary facilities. AAHA standards SA26-SA29 cover fire and smoke safety.

Fatalities in the Colorado fire were attributed to smoke inhalation and – at press time – several dogs were listed in critical condition at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital, an AAHA-accredited hospital. Clinic employees used personal vehicles and volunteered time to aid pets in need, fire fighters said.

On Jan. 1, 22 dogs were boarded at Best Friends in a building that was built in November 2004. The building did not have a fire or smoke detector, said Debra Bennetts, kennel spokesperson. Although the building met fire code, a fire marshal told NEWStat that one sprinkler head could have extinguished the fire.

 “The majority of our 44 centers are well-equipped with detector and alarm systems,” Bennetts said. “A few are not, although those properties do fully meet local fire regulations. Sadly, we have seen that compliance with the fire code may not be sufficient - despite the fast response of staff and firefighters.”

An additional 94 dogs were housed in an older building at the Best Friends kennel, which also does not have a smoke detector or sprinkler system, Bennetts said. Fire code does not require Type B occupancy buildings, which includes veterinary clinics, kennels, and pounds, to have smoke or alarm alarms, though one new kennel in Arvada, Colo., has requested a sprinkler system in its new facility. Owners of the kennel told fire fighters of their intention to market that safety feature to pet owners.

“I know I’d feel more comfortable if my pet were in a kennel that sprinkled [reference to sprinkler systems] than one that didn’t,” said Sparky Shriver, fire marshal for Arvada, a city that abuts Wheat Ridge. “We are firm believers in sprinkler systems.”

Shriver estimates that sprinkler systems cost $2.50 per square foot to install.

AAHA practices that utilize AAHAs affinity partner HUB International Midwest Insurance and install sprinkler systems are eligible for a 15 percent credit on their insurance, according to Lori Shaffer, program analyst. There is no additional credit for centrally-monitored smoke and fire alarms because the company assumes that practices have the alarms installed, Shaffer added.

When asked whether the accident would prompt Best Friends to reassess its alarm status, Bennetts said, “Over the coming weeks, we plan to review the equipment and procedures at all of our locations to determine what changes may be required to improve the safety and security of pets in our care."

The fire was sparked by combustible materials that came into contact with the burner of the kennel’s water heater, Shriver said. Though fire fighters do not know when the fire was sparked, smoke levels indicated that it was slow burning and had burned for a long time. The fire did not infiltrate the area where dogs were housed, thanks to a fire wall, Bennetts said. The smoke, however, was not contained.

The Arvada Fire Department responded to the call from kennel employees who arrived for work at 8 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2007, within six minutes. Fire fighters were able to save several pets with pet oxygen masks that had been donated, ironically, by the Best Friends Kennel chain two years ago.

The company’s “Cause for Paws” program has distributed 2,500 masks to fire departments around the United States in the last two years with the help of community contributions, Bennetts said. “We never expected that they would be used in one of our facilities,” she added.

Best Friends is a member of the American Boarding Kennel Association (ABKA) but it is not an accredited member. Accredited members must have sprinkler systems or fire extinguishers and centrally-monitored smoke and fire alarm systems are highly recommended, said Carmen Rustenbeck, ABKA spokesperson.

Refraining from calling the associations standards easy to meet, Rustenbeck said they represent the minimum procedures that the ABKA wants to see in kennels, especially since pets now hold such an important place in the hearts and lives of their owners.

“There is so much at risk now with indoor kennels,” she added.

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