Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams rise and shine

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In the dark morning hours of Friday, Oct 13, while most of the world was tucked away in bed, the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams sprang into action at the National Fire Academy's National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md, to begin a two-and-a-half-day training event for all four teams. The goal: to be prepared to offer veterinary oversight and assistance to an overwhelmed veterinary community in the aftermath of a disaster.

Among the dignitaries who showed up to lend support to the VMAT mission were members of the National Disaster Medical System: Adm Robert F. Knouss, director of the United States Public Health Service Office of Emergency Preparedness; Capt William Tyler, director of emergency readiness and operations; Robert Cornish, an expert on weapons of mass destruction; Steve Caesar, communications expert; and Buddy Bell, VMAT liaison to NDMS.

Also in attendance were David McMillion, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, and Dr. Cindy S. Lovern, assistant director of emergency preparedness and response for the AVMA. The state agency provides additional support to VMAT-2, which is based in Baltimore.

The first day began with team member introductions and utility belt assembly, then the teams adjourned to the mess hall for a good, hot breakfast before continuing the major tasks of the day. The activities scheduled for the weekend training exercise included a round-robin scenario of common disaster relief tasks, each task ending with a skills test before members could move on to the next station.

The common tasks consisted of predeployment inspection, water purification, satellite phone operation, disaster scene evaluation and communication, radio procedures and operational skills, nerve gas antidote use and procedures, evaluation of a human casualty, response to a blast/explosion and crush injury situation, personal protection gear assembly, working dog evaluation, and decontamination training.

A day of training begins for the VMAT.
A day of training begins for the VMAT.

In addition to the hands on tasks and testing, lectures were scheduled throughout the weekend. The lecture material covered communication skills and equipment, the incident command system, radiation, field sanitation, decontamination, crush and blast injuries, and the National Disaster Medical System policies and procedures.

The VMAT may have come to the exercise as four individual teams, but the team members left the exercise as a cohesive disaster response force.

Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams are the only veterinary disaster response force that is part of the Federal Response Plan. The National Disaster Medical System is composed of four federal departments or agencies – Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Such federal recognition of the need for animal care provided the framework for the AVMA to organize veterinary health professionals into Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams that could respond to the needs of animals during a disaster, in the same way that Disaster Medical Assistance Teams provide medical aid to human casualties of disasters.

When it deems that the local veterinary infrastructure is overwhelmed, the state that is affected submits a request for federal assistance to the FEMA.

Once the request for veterinary medical assistance is approved by FEMA and National Disaster Medical System, the VMAT are deployed to assist the local veterinary community in the treatment of injured and displaced animals, and provide assistance/oversight for public health issues such as zoonotic diseases, water contamination, food quality, animal carcass disposal, and decontamination of animals affected by floodwaters or a biological or chemical agent attack.

Disaster preparedness is the only way to mitigate the effects of a disaster. All veterinarians should have a personal and a business disaster plan in place.

To learn more about how and when the VMAT deploy to help during disasters, please visit our Web site at To support the VMAT with a tax-deductible gift visit the American Veterinary Medical Foundation site at

The VMAT are made possible through the generous support of The Iams Company, AVMA, AVMF, and other sponsors.