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Planning to volunteer?


Tragedy tugs at the heart. A county or region never realizes its potential solidarity until it must unite to overcome odds.

Tragedy tugs at the heart. A county or region never realizes its potential solidarity until it must unite to overcome odds.

"Our minister said, 'We've met people on our street that we've never met before because we were all out there working together,'" Dr. John Stevens, proprietor of Animal Medical Clinic in Port Charlotte, Fla., says about his community's response to Hurricane Charley in 2004.

A generous outpouring follows, but in the case of veterinary medicine, it's often too late to volunteer services after disaster strikes.

A volunteer washes a lost dog at a temporary animal clinic following Katrina.

"Being on the emergency response side of it for as long as I have, it's very frustrating when all the well-meaning people come out of the woodwork to help, but you have no criteria or idea as what their availability or capabilities are in a disaster," says Dr. Barry Kellogg, a 10-year Veterinary Medical Assistance Team leader and the new medical director the Humane Society of the United States. "The last thing that disaster responders want to do is create more victims, and that's the big danger."

The key to effective deployment of emergency responders is organization of resources, which means practitioners who might want to donate services in the event of a local, regional or national emergency must voice their interest with state or local veterinary medical associations, emergency responders and humane societies before they are needed.

State and local VMAs and state and country commanders then can keep a database of potential help complete with available expertise and individual capital resources, Kellogg says.

But emergency response often can be mired with poor communications and disjointed protocols, which is why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated the National Response Plan. After 9/11, DHS created training modules to enable national, state and local emergency management agencies to work. The National Incident Management System is comprised of training modules for aligning command structures, communications and operational procedures. DHS adopted Incident Command System (ICS), which was developed more than 30 years ago in the aftermath of a devastating wildfire in California. During 13 days in 1970, 16 lives were lost, 700 structures were destroyed, and more than one-half million acres burned. The overall cost and loss associated with these fires totaled $18 million per day. Although all of the responding agencies cooperated to the best of their ability, numerous problems with communication and coordination hampered their effectiveness.

"First responders must be able to work within a system, so it is critical that they get ICS training," says Dr. Jim Hamilton, VMAT 3 founder and commander. "If I have five veterinarians in front of me, they might be very good veterinarians, but I'm not into how well they know their disease diagnosis and treatment. I don't really care about that frankly. What I care about is that they are safe and understand the chain of command; they are not working in a vacuum."

DHS offers online training opportunities, and state and local VMAs likely have a disaster task force that might help coordinate a response with the state veterinarian or a county incident commander.

It's also important to have some hazardous materials training, as many animals brought in by rescue groups are contaminated with petroleum products and various forms of waste, Hamilton says. Practitioners must keep themselves safe to continue to help rescued animals.

It also might be a good idea to brush up on water safety and food safety as it pertains to public health.

"We as veterinarians are in fact taught public health medicine, just very few of us ever use it, so we just need to bring it out of the cobwebs of our brains," Hamilton says.

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