When disaster strikes...where will you be?
You can play a crucial role in helping animals and pet owners in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and other disasters.
In the movie 2012, the main character faces earthquakes, volcanoes, and global flooding—all in a single day. Although you probably won't ever face multiple disasters simultaneously, disaster is something we all need to prepare for.
Face the aftermath: Vehicles and mobile command posts, including the canine search-and-rescue veterinary hospital, fill the view near the high school in Joplin, Mo., after last year's devastating tornado.
Depending on where you live, you could encounter earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornados, or tsunamis. And terrorist attacks are a potential threat to all of us. Now think of all the animals in your community that would be affected by disaster: not just your patients, but livestock, zoo animals, research subjects, and shelter animals.
Pets during disasters can put people at risk as well. Before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, hundreds of people refused evacuation because they couldn't take their pets along. When people refuse evacuation, they put themselves and emergency personnel at risk. In response, Congress enacted the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act in 2006, requiring state and local governments to account for household pets and service animals in their disaster planning.
However, even five years after the PETS Act, many local communities haven't resolved the issues posed by animals in disasters. Dr. Ben Leavens, whose town of Joplin, Mo., was decimated by a tornado in 2011, says, "In a disaster like we had, people really won't leave their animals behind. There were many people who would not leave for shelters until their animals were taken care of. Some spent the night in the wreckage of their homes because they would not leave their pets." One of his employees was denied entrance at her designated neighborhood shelter as the storm approached because she had brought her dog. She and her dog rode out the storm in her car, with the tornado just barely missing them. "If the tornado's path had gone just a bit different, they would be dead," Dr. Leavens says.
How can we as veterinarians get involved in disaster preparedness and response for the benefit of our communities and our patients?
The first rule of emergency response is: Do not self-deploy. People who show up at a disaster site independent of a formal organization risk becoming casualties themselves. One of the lessons of 9/11 was that a cohesive, nationwide emergency response plan was needed. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) specifies that everyone on scene needs to fit into an established order of command and that all the organizations need to use plain English to communicate, rather than agency-specific codes or jargon. You can take NIMS independent study courses for free online on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website. (Find links to all the websites mentioned in this article at http://dvm360.com/disasterprep.)
There are both private-sector and public-section options for veterinarians who want to get involved in disaster preparedness and emergency response. Some of those include:
MEDICAL RESERVE CORPS (MRC)
The mission of the Medical Reserve Corps is "to engage volunteers to strengthen public health, emergency response, and community resiliency." Local MRC units include volunteer physicians, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, and pharmacists who are all precredentialed to respond in emergency situations to protect public health. Since the MRC is primarily concerned with human health needs in a disaster situation, veterinarians with MRC units would mainly be dealing with humans and would only address animal issues if resources allowed.
Dr. Val Poll of Coldwater Animal Hospital in North Ogden, Utah, is an MRC unit member, and he says the organization has been thrilled with the willingness of area veterinarians to participate. "We had eight local veterinarians complete the first level of training," he says.
However, Dr. Poll feels that "veterinarians have a specific ability to address the underserved animal population in an emergency," so he is also an active member in his local County Animal Response Team (see below).
VETERINARY MEDICAL RESERVE CORPS (VMRC)
Several states have a VMRC, which is similar to the MRC but specifically addresses the needs of animals. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians in the VMRC could be called to investigate and contain animal disease outbreaks, treat animal victims of natural disasters, or decontaminate animals after a radiologic or chemical disaster.
STATE ANIMAL RESPONSE TEAM (SART) AND COUNTY ANIMAL RESPONSE TEAM (CART)
The first SART team was established in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd killed more than 3 million domestic animals (pets and livestock) in 1999. Since then, other states have organized teams using North Carolina's model. SART and CART teams provide a structure for local governments, animal control organizations, humane societies, veterinary clinics, and other groups to work together to plan for animals in disaster.
Dr. Warren Hess, Utah's assistant state veterinarian, helped establish Utah's response team, called the Utah Emergency Animal Response Coalition (UEARC). The coalition has three large trailers equipped as emergency shelters for small animals. Each can house about 75 pets and can be rapidly deployed statewide for such emergencies as wildfires and floods. UEARC has also organized Large Animal Technical Rescue Training courses to teach police, fire, and animal control personnel techniques for rescuing large animals, such as a horse trapped in an overturned trailer. UEARC recently participated in the Great Utah ShakeOut, a statewide earthquake drill. During the drill, UEARC worked with the American Red Cross to collocate shelters for human "earthquake victims" and their pets.
"The greatest accomplishment of UEARC has been successfully engaging state agencies as partners in animal emergency response," says Dr. Hess. "We're developing relationships between the Department of Agriculture, emergency managers, and state CERT directors."
COMMUNITY EMERGENCY RESPONSE TEAMS (CERT)
All disasters start and end locally. In a major disaster, first responders (fire, police, and emergency medical services) will be quickly overwhelmed. You, your family, and your neighbors will be on your own. CERT teams provide training and organization for neighbors and coworkers to help these groups provide light search and rescue, fire suppression, and basic life support.
"I love the CERT model," says Dr. Poll, "because it focuses on the essential nature of handling emergencies on a local level rather than waiting for outside help to arrive."
SEARCH AND RESCUE (SAR)
I've been working with SAR dogs and handlers for several years and find it very rewarding. The partnership between canine and human is amazing, and the dogs' scenting ability is phenomenal. Most SAR dog handlers are volunteers. They do the job because they are dedicated to helping people. I recently joined FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Utah Task Force 1 to provide medical care for the dogs both on- and off-duty.
US&R focuses on assignments in urban environments, like rescuing tornado victims from a collapsed building. Other SAR teams focus on wilderness searches, such as finding lost children, stranded hikers, or victims of a mountaintop airplane crash. Dogs are an integral part and may be certified as live-find or cadaver dogs. Veterinarians can join SAR teams as canine handlers, horseback-mounted searchers, technical rescuers, or search managers in charge of planning and logistics.
Dr. Alan Fudge, Dipl. ABVP (Avian), of Bird Doctor Housecalls in El Dorado Hills, Calif., is a member of El Dorado County Search and Rescue (EDSAR), which works with country sheriffs. EDSAR covers the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe wilderness areas and includes swiftwater (river), Nordic (snow), high-angle (cliff), and K-9 teams. Besides treating search dogs' injuries, Dr. Fudge is a rigger on the cliff rescue team.
"We have an incredible variety of highly educated people in all fields participating plus locals who bring huge skills and knowledge to the team," Dr. Fudge says.
Dr. Jennifer Bouthilet of Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Maplewood, Minn., is a member of K-9 Emergency Response Teams (KERT), a multi-specialty search and rescue organization based in Wisconsin. She has two certified SAR dogs: "Gem," a live-find Wilderness Area Air Scent dog, and "Cliff," a Human Remains Detection (cadaver) dog. Dr. Bouthilet says the greatest reward of SAR work is of course, finding a lost person, but she also loves to watch the dogs at work.
"The dogs think it's a great game," Dr. Bouthilet says. "I love watching Gem run through the woods and then suddenly turn her head and take off in a completely different direction because she's caught wind of the subject who's still too far away to be seen."
Disaster preparedness and emergency response can take many forms at the local, state, and national level. So both veterinarians and lay staff members have ample opportunity to volunteer their time and expertise to help people and pets in need.