I survived a kennel fire

Liz Marsh

This is the true story of how one veterinary boarding kennel team learned the importance of fire-safety training.

When boarding kennel assistant manager Nadja Torling pulled into the parking lot of Best Friends Pet Care in Wheat Ridge, Colo., there was no sign of fire or smoke. But as she entered the kennel at 8 a.m. on New Year's Day four years ago, she smelled a hint of smoke. “It was so faint that it wasn't alarming,” Torling says. But as the first employee to arrive that morning, she decided to walk through the main building and new addition just to check things out.

“I unlocked the door to the second building and was stunned and utterly horrified to find a smoky room with about a foot of water on the floor. There was no sign of flames at all,” she said.

Later the Arvada Fire Protection District would determined a water heater in the building's adjoining kitchen and laundry area had started the fire and that the fire wall built between the utility area and the kennels prevented the fire from spreading.

When Torling turned around, the second employee on the scene was walking up behind her. Torling yelled to her co-worker to call 911 and then her instincts took over.

“The building had three doors to the outside and I ran around opening them to get air into the building. As I was opening the doors, the building was completely silent. There was no barking, no movement, nothing,” Torling says. “As I propped the last door open, two more employees had arrived and ran up to me. One of them noticed a dog moving in the completely dark building so we ran in and pulled the American eskimo mix outside.”

At this point, the fire department arrived. “We were all amazed at how quickly and smoothly the firefighters evacuated the dogs during this incident,” Torling says. Many boarding kennel team members had expressed during fire safety trainings that they didn't know if they could leave the building without saving animals. Best Friends Pet Care's policy is to evacuate people first and let the fire department take care of the pets. But during this incident, none of the team members compromised their safety or anyone else's-pets or people. They let the firefighters do their job, Torling says.

By the time the dogs were out of the building, animal control and emergency veterinarians were already on the scene, triaging and transporting the dogs to Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital's emergency facility. Fortunately, that year several large snowstorms during the holidays had prevented clients from traveling and boarding their pets, so there were only 25 dogs in the affected building. “Most of them were able to walk out on their own,” Torling says. Tragically, three dogs were lost in the fire.

The rest of Torling's day was a blur of contactingpet owners, taking phone calls, and coordinating employees and volunteers who wanted to help. While time was a blur, one thing was clear: The team's fire-safety training had paid off.

“Even though this was an absolutely devastating day for all of us, our team pulled together beautifully and performed fabulously under pressure,” Torling says. “It's important to continuously review protocols to keep them current and to have drills where you physically have to go through the motions. If you've done it in training, it's a lot easier to know what to do when there's an actual emergency.”

Torling is now the practice manager of client relations at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital in Wheat Ridge, Colo. Click here to comment on this article.