June 15, 2009


 Tri-state conference promotes local disaster planning

Event draws emergency responders who handle animal issues in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond

Posted June 1, 2009

Flooding along the Mississippi River in Iowa. An incident at a nuclear power plant in Minnesota. The derailment of a train full of chemicals in Weyauwega, Wis. 

All these disasters could occur or have happened already. In each type of disaster, animals as well as humans require evacuation and sheltering—and sometimes rescue and medical care. The first responders on the scene are usually local- or county-level groups, and the response tends to expand to the state or regional level before any national resources come into play.

Emergency responders from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond came together April 28-29 in La Crosse, Wis., during the Tri-State Veterinary Disaster Response Conference to discuss animal issues during disasters and other emergencies. Speakers emphasized the importance of planning and training—particularly at the local, county, and state levels—to handle situations ranging from the evacuation of animals during a disaster to the emergency of an overturned horse trailer. 

Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD
Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD, one of the lead instructors
with the Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue
training organization, speaks during the Tri-State
Veterinary Disaster Response Conference, April 28-29
in La Crosse, Wis.
Drs. Dittberner and Wittnich
Drs. Gordon Dittberner, Canadian VMA senior adviser for
veterinary affairs, and Carin Wittnich (right), a member
of the Canadian Veterinary Reserve, participate in the
recent conference on veterinary disaster response.
The tri-state conference drew a number of speakers
and attendees from beyond Wisconsin, Iowa, and

State response teams

Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin each have a state-level veterinary or animal response team. The teams don't have exactly the same structure, however, and the states haven't experienced exactly the same disasters. 

Dr. Randy L. Wheeler, Iowa assistant state veterinarian, said the Iowa Veterinary Rapid Response Team comprises veterinarians and animal health professionals who report to the state veterinarian when deployed. Members participate in annual training, which counts toward continuing education credits. During deployment, members receive insurance coverage from the state.

Last year, the Iowa team helped respond to flooding along the Mississippi River that inundated cities such as Cedar Rapids. A temporary animal shelter at Kirkwood Community College took in more than 1,000 animals.

"A lot of the Cedar Rapids people who showed up at Kirkwood had only two things: their pet and their vehicle," Dr. Wheeler said.

At Iowa's request—via the national, interstate Emergency Management Assistance Compact—the University of Minnesota's unit of the Medical Reserve Corps also sent veterinarians to assist at the temporary shelter.

The MRC is a national network of volunteer medical units that, with sponsorship from the U.S. surgeon general and local groups, supplement community resources for emergency response and public health. Some state veterinary or animal response teams, such as the statewide Minnesota Veterinary Reserve Corps, have become specialty units of the MRC.

Dr. Michael R. Hannon, coordinator of the Minnesota veterinary corps and member of an AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team, said initial funds for the state team came from Minnesota's two nuclear power plants, which have to plan for animals and humans in case of an incident. The state veterinary corps received additional start-up grants from the MRC and American Veterinary Medical Foundation. The team is a program of the Minnesota VMA.

Iowa flooding
Debris is piled against the 1898 Union Pacific railroad bridge over the
Cedar River in Iowa in mid-June 2008.

Specific to the nuclear power plants, Dr. Hannon said, the plan is to have people take their pets to animal reception centers before going to human reception centers. Volunteers will monitor animals for radiation. The veterinary corps has not yet determined how to decontaminate animals for radiation, however.

Dr. Darlene M. Konkle, coordinator of animal emergencies for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, said the Wisconsin Veterinary Corps started in 2004 as a unit of the MRC but went inactive. The team re-launched last year as the Wisconsin Animal Response Corps, still a unit of the MRC but now open to a variety of members who have experience in handling animals.

A Wisconsin animal response team might have been helpful in 1996, when a train full of chemicals derailed in Weyauwega and caught fire. Residents evacuated the area without their pets, thinking they would return soon. The evacuation actually lasted more than two weeks, so residents started sneaking back for the pets. Emergency responders eventually had to arrange for escorts to take pet owners back into the area safely.  

County, local response

In recent years, some county and local officials have been planning for animal issues during emergencies. Karma Kumlin-Diers, an emergency management coordinator for Ramsey County, Minn., spoke at the tri-state conference on disaster response about her county's plan for animals. 

Kumlin-Diers said Ramsey County, which encompasses St. Paul, is home to more than 500,000 people. She estimated the pet population to be almost 200,000. She noted that animal issues during a disaster would include transport, shelter, supplies, caretakers, and veterinary care.

Public education is a solution to limitations on resources, Kumlin-Diers said. People need to plan for disasters, and part of that planning is to prepare to take pets with them during an evacuation. "They don't have their own plans," Kumlin-Diers said.

Ramsey County emergency managers do have disaster plans, however. They have identified several shelters in St. Paul for co-locating pets near owners, Kumlin-Diers said. The county is creating portable supply caches for the temporary animal shelters and already has written guidelines for veterinary care.

Kumlin-Diers said her office also is working on a template to help other Minnesota counties plan for animal issues during emergencies.

Sometimes an animal issue is the emergency, and large animals can present very difficult issues for local emergency responders. Rebecca M. Gimenez, PhD, spoke during the tri-state conference about the rescue of large animals.

Dr. Gimenez is one of the lead instructors for the Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue training organization. The group offers training across the country for emergency responders such as firefighters and police officers as well as veterinarians.

Rescuing large animals requires an understanding of their instinct to flee and the danger they can pose, Dr. Gimenez said. Some sort of restraint, such as a halter for a horse, is important for handling large animals safely. Sedation is another approach, although the animal might still be able to bite or kick.

"Darting is not the solution you think it is," Dr. Gimenez said. "The other tranquilizer we always forget about is alfalfa hay."

The rescue of large animals often requires some basic equipment. In the case of a horse in mud, Dr. Gimenez said, simple equipment can inject air or water to help break the suction. Emergency responders should then attach straps to the torso of the horse instead of the fragile legs, head, or neck.

Dr. Gimenez concluded her talk by describing a successful emergency response to an overturned horse trailer. A tractor-trailer carrying 42 horses rolled over at 3:15 a.m. Sept. 5, 2006, in Eureka, Mo. Responders closed off one side of the interstate, put fencing around the truck, and cut open the trailer. They set up an off-site field hospital and euthanized horses that wouldn't survive. They also called local horse owners to take in the survivors.  

How to volunteer 

All the speakers at the recent conference said veterinarians who want to volunteer for emergency response need training and an affiliation with a government agency or nongovernmental partner. For more information, veterinarians can begin by contacting their state VMA or agriculture department.