Preparing an equine practice for a natural disaster


A spate of natural diasters - hurricanes, tornadoes, flood, wildfires and earthquakes - have impacted veterinary practices in many parts of the country this year.

A spate of natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and earthquakes — have impacted veterinary practices in many parts of the country this year and in the past few years.

Practitioners are getting better at dealing with them, as seen most recently after Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast, but many more could benefit from the experience of those who have gone through a disaster and its aftermath.

"It seems we've never had to deal with such a magnitude of disasters," says Bill Moyer, DVM, head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences. Moyer also is the newly appointed vice president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP).

Caring for horses and other large animals after a disaster can be particularly challenging, but in some ways equine practitioners inherently may be better prepared at providing leadership and assistance in such situations, Moyer believes.

Why? "The reason is that most of us have had to work under incredibly varied circumstances — for example, no roof, tied to a fence post, catch the animal, all sorts of weather (mud, snow, wind, rain), in the dark, and so on, whereas small-animal practitioners have most of the amenities. Small-animal practitioners — not all, but most — are not comfortable around animals larger than a (Great) Dane. But large-animal folks can handle or figure out how to handle most anything," Moyer says.

Still, equine practitioners can learn much about disaster preparation from those with experience. Here are suggestions from sources in three states on disaster-proofing an equine practice, although much of the advice also applies to all veterinarians:

Safety begins at home

"My first message is always that you have to (first) be prepared yourself," says Terry Paik, DVM, Veterinary Disaster Response Coordinator for San Diego County, Calif., an area that has dealt with wildfires.

"A lot of veterinarians want to help during disasters, but if you're worried about your family you really can't help anyone else," Paik says. The veterinarian should have a communication and evacuation plan at home, so that his or her family is safe. "Then they need to prepare the practice.

"The first step for the owner is to determine what the likely emergency or event he or she is likely to encounter — whatever might be the greatest threat potential in your area," Paik says, adding that every type of disaster contingency has its own specific needs.

Two essential keys, Paik says, are evacuation and communication.

"In case of evacuation, determine where you will meet with staff; know the location of gas, water and electrical shut-offs; have a list of items to take with you, such as critical documents and papers; and get some CPR training.

"Have trailers, vans and towing vehicles full of gas and ready to move," Paik adds.

As for communication, prepare an emergency contact list of key people and phone numbers. The evacuation plan not only may require transport and movement of horse patients, but also "where people are going to go, where to meet, how to communicate with each other and with clients," says Paik.

After developing a plan, "practice your plan and train, train, train," Paik says.

The plan should include a call-in/alert staff roster, and stocking extra supplies for emergency use only.

"Our local association in San Diego has two goals," Paik says. "One is to educate member veterinarians how to respond during a disaster, and the second is to educate clients. If everyone had a plan and evacuated (properly), they wouldn't need us."

Depending on location, some practices should have separate plans for various types of disasters, Paik says.

After the post-Katrina failures, Congress passed the PETS (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards) Act to provide emergency transportation for animals.

"The law now provides that local agencies have to include animals in their evacuation plans," says Paik. "Every county in the country should have a written disaster plan. Veterinarians should get familiar with that document to see how they fit in."

Major systems DVMs should know about and become part of include the Emergency Alert System (EAS), the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS).

Communication: a lifeline

"There are two distinct situations that need to be addressed," notes Dana Zimmel, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (equine practice), a University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine faculty member and expert on hurricane disaster preparation.

"First, the practice must consider the protection of staff, hospitalized patients and property before the arrival of the hurricane (or disaster event).

"The next step is to determine the resources needed to continue to operate after the storm."

Equine veterinary practices need to work together and organize their communities to deal with a large-scale event, Zimmel says, adding that communication is vital.

With cell phones and other communication devices, each member of an equine veterinary team should have access to staff contact information and a planned hierarchy of communication.

If cell-phone communication is knocked out, alternatives need to be considered such as radios or, as Zimmel suggests, even a dry erase board on the outside of the building where messages can be left by people in need of service and checked regularly for quick response to farms, homes or to assist stranded and distressed horses.

A written disaster plan, Zimmel says, is critical to ensure patient care, horse and staff safety, continuance of facility operations and building safety.

The veterinary staff needs to be aware of specific dangers for each type of disaster, such as hurricane wind speed, expected storm surge and floodwater levels; and to be conscious of building integrity, fire danger to horses and buildings and stranded or distressed animals.

During a disaster, a veterinarian is only as strong as his/her partner, the horse owner, Zimmel says. Equine practitioners must educate their clients in advance on such matters as location of equine shelters, names of equine hospitals supplied with generators, horse transportation provisions, location of veterinary supplies, the need for proper horse identification and location of facilities to shelter loose, rescued or relocated horses.

Facilities need to have adequate stalls, water, electricity (generator), hay and grain, water/feed buckets, halters, lead ropes, leg wraps, barn tools, a first-aid kit and security.

Power alternatives

"The most important consideration is to put together a comprehensive emergency plan for your clinic and for your people," says Becky McConnico, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM (large-animal), associate professor of equine medicine at Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine and equine branch director of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team.

Another should be decisions about the need for staff and horse evacuations prior to the disaster, based on its potential severity and the possible inability of the practice to continue functioning, she adds.

"We actually had a meeting (preceding landfall of Gustav), knowing that this storm was on its way, and we felt like we had a good plan. We believed we were in a safe location and wouldn't have to leave," McConnico recalls. "But at the end (of the meeting) we asked ourselves, what if we do have to evacuate this building? Where are we going? Who are we taking with us? Which animals are we taking?"

Other considerations include power alternatives, such as generators, vehicle fuel and the need for potable and/or sterile water, sterile supplies and vital medical equipment.

"One of the things that just hit us in the face during Gustav was loss of power," McConnico says. "Even the veterinary school lost power, and therefore we didn't have air-conditioning. That (in turn) affected our surgery facility for small and large animals. It got so wet in there we couldn't even stay in the rooms, let alone think we had anything sterile anymore, because all the instruments got wet just from condensation and the moisture in the air. Things like that you don't even think about."

Also, as part of a practice plan, assess potential risk to staff, medical records, inventory, computer systems, physical plant and insurance and be proactive about protecting them, McConnico advises.

Networking with other veterinarians is key, too. "Try to find a 'buddy' practice that you can evacuate to and (after the disaster) work with while your practice is getting repaired," she suggests.

"A couple of the equine practices, after Katrina, worked out of the same building, within the same practice area, to help each other get back on their feet."

At LSU's veterinary school, some elective courses aim to give students a taste of what they might have to deal with during a disaster.

For Gulf Coast practices and perhaps for many others around the country, that may become a helpful tool for the future.

Help from the AAEP

The AAEP has several disaster-preparation resources on its Web site,

One is an "Emergency Planning Workbook" that details issues veterinarians and horse owners need to consider, including a checklist.

It suggests preparing a "Large Animal Kit" and lists the items that should go into it.

Kane is a Seattle author, researcher and consultant in animal nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine, with a background in horses, pets and livestock.

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