VMAT on a mission at Republican convention

Deployment to New York involved dual role
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It's often a hurricane or other natural disaster that one connects with the relief provided by the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams.

These teams of veterinarians, technicians, and support personnel are also ready to be deployed when terrorism or other man-made disasters strike—and to help foil such events.

The 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the annual State of the Union address, and the G8 Summit in June were a few of the U.S.-held events where VMAT teams or members have been engaged.

And as millions of Americans tuned in to the Republican National Convention, Aug. 30-Sept. 2, 25 members of VMAT-1 and two members of VMAT-2 worked at strategic locations in New York City to safeguard politicians and public alike. Dr. Barry Kellogg was the incident commander for the deployment.

"We served a dual role in this deployment," Dr. Kellogg said. "Ours was the only operational mission for the RNC, which means we were the only (National Disaster Medical System) team that had something to do on an ongoing basis as a part of the RNC." Like the other NDMS teams and individuals, the VMAT was also there as a prestaged asset, in case something went wrong. They arrived a few days early to set up.

The VMAT's primary mission was to provide veterinary support to the service dogs that sniffed for bombs and other explosives. VMAT members stationed themselves where the dog teams were working—at funneling points on train stations and subways leading to downtown New York and Madison Square Garden, the convention site.

Dr. Mark Lloyd, who became the interim team commander of VMAT-1 in August after Dr. Kellogg resigned from that position, also served in the deployment. With temperatures climbing to the 80s and 90s that week, and long shifts outside, Dr. Lloyd said the team provided preventive care and frequent examinations to try and keep the dogs from dehydrating or sustaining burns on their pads from the hot, rough pavement.

Most injuries were minor and related to those conditions. One dog was slightly hurt while walking over a steam grate, another in a fall. An explosives detection German Shepherd Dog named Rex O'Donohue died in the line of duty. A member of the New Jersey Transit Police K-9 Unit, Rex was not working at the time, but was hit by a vehicle inside a compound.

The VMAT were deployed as Special Event Veterinary Response, or SERV, units, and were located in places convenient to the dog teams. Each had a leader, two veterinarians, and two technicians. They can't function entirely on their own, but they can set up complete veterinary surgical hospitals.

Veterinary involvement at the Republican convention was a joint effort, Dr. Kellogg said, citing in particular two organizations—the Veterinary Emergency Response Team of New York City, which had volunteer veterinarians staffing one of the locations where VMAT-1 was assigned, the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

The other was the Suffolk County SPCA, which, according to Dr. Lloyd, was one of the VMAT's primary allies supporting the search dogs. "I worked with these people at 9-11," said the SPCA's Roy Gross. "(Seeing them again) brought back good and bad memories, and friendships we created. Working together enabled us to provide more widespread services for what was needed by these courageous canines."

Just as with the Sept. 11 disaster, the SCSPCA peace officers were there to support the needs of the service animals and their care providers. When not deployed to a special event or disaster, the officers investigate animal abuse cases. They are trained observers. The MASH unit is staffed by the same personnel who worked at ground zero.

"Basically, the peace officers provide protection, security, and transportation for any type of emergency with satellite vehicles to anywhere in the city. But in a situation like this, we're there to protect the veterinarians, the vet techs, and the drugs on our MASH unit." The unit contains 27 holding cages.

Inside the "frozen zone," VMAT-1 member Dr. Cathy Theisen was a SERV unit leader stationed in the basement of a post office across the street from Madison Square Garden, the location of the command center for support activities. The frozen zone constituted the area surrounding Madison Square Garden, which was accessible only to visiting dignitaries and individuals with passes.

Her team of two veterinarians and two technicians each from VMAT-1 and the Department of Defense Command set up a clinic next to the NYPD paramedics and explosives experts, in the command center. Handlers could bring their dogs to the clinic, and during the course of the day, the SERV unit sent teams to them.

As with the other SERV units from VMAT-1, Dr. Thiesen's unit primarily saw heat-related problems, but they had a close-up view of the massive security effort—thousands of Secret Service agents, choppers with lights passing over buildings, personnel positioned to keep an eye on various apartment buildings. She saw members of the president's family and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when they arrived.

"Probably the most interesting thing to me," Dr. Theisen said, "was that, at one point, the buzz was going around that a huge group of protesters (was going to) break through the barriers. In talking to police and people who have to quell riots, (I learned) what they do—the mounted police move nose to tail and sidestep in unison. So, you use this wall of horseflesh, and (the rioters) don't (challenge them)."

She was amazed at the tension of seeing a five-block-long group of protesters on one side and on the other side, row after row of mounted police in riot gear.

"The other interesting thing is the patrol dogs—if (an officer) points a gun at a suspect who's running, he may not stop, but if he says, 'Stop or I'll let my dog go,' they'll stop. Even in this high-tech age, those dogs and horses are essential in crowd control."

Gross of the Suffolk County SPCA said, "People ask, why are you there to help the Republicans? I say the animals are nonpartisan! We're there to protect the animals who protect the people."

The SCSPCA offered to go to the Democratic National Convention as well, but the letter they sent to the Massachusetts state police was apparently waylaid, and by the time Gross got a call back asking for their involvement, it was only two days before the convention in Boston, too little time to pull things together. Although SPCAs are nationwide, Gross believes it's because of the unique experience the SCSPCA gained from ground zero that facilities request their presence.

Although no VMAT was requested at the Democratic convention, Dr. Lloyd served on the Joint Management Team for the event, to address animal issues that might arise and provide a direct link to the VMATs, should that become necessary.

G8 Summit
Another event that showcased veterinary expertise was the Group of Eight, or G8 Summit, held in June on Sea Island, Ga. Veterinarians were a vital part of the extensive security infrastructure for this gathering of leaders of the world's major industrial democracies.

The Secret Service, a federal agency administered by the Department of Homeland Security, was in charge of summit security. Just as the planning and coordination of the summit and its 20 secured venues spanned government agencies at all levels, veterinary involvement came through local, state, and federal entities.

From the federal government, VMAT-3 was deployed to provide supportive veterinary care for all the credentialed animal units, including the 62 mounted police units and 40 canine teams activated by the government. Members of VMAT-3 were stationed in two locations—five in Savannah and five in Brunswick. VMAT-3 team commander, Dr. Jim Hamilton, said, "I look at us as a sort of pit crew."

Leadership transition
Dr. Kellogg noted it's been challenging to bring the VMATs under the Department of Homeland Security because of the logistic problems of combining three corporate cultures. "Homeland Security has swallowed up FEMA as well as NDMS, two agencies that used to exist separately and have their own corporate cultures," he said.

He was VMAT-1 commander for 10 years, until submitting his resignation as commander Aug. 19. "I've seen this program grow from literally an idea in people's heads to a bona fide, full-fledged, credible response program," he said. The team has grown to a size and involvement that requires a lot of help from team members and a redefining of roles. Dr. Kellogg plans to stay actively involved on VMAT-1 as the deputy team commander. He is also chief of staff for the Animal Rescue Coalition—running a mobile spay/neuter clinic in the indigent areas of Sarasota County, Florida, and he chairs the AVMA Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues.

After Dr. Kellogg's resignation, Dr. Lloyd was named interim commander. Semiretired, he is a wildlife and captive animal consultant. He believes there is a growing appreciation for the value of veterinarians in disasters. Dr. Lloyd has developed a great respect for the service dogs and their role in national security; if a handler were to die, he said, the dog still knows what it has to do. His first love is conservation medicine. "We originally started with natural disasters. Now, it's mutated a bit (to terrorism and issues such as) decontamination. (That work is) not as rewarding. It's risk ...versus stress."