Federal veterinary team deployed post-Rita raises questions

Newly formed disaster response team has AVMA questioning relationship with NDMS
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Three days after Hurricane Rita made landfall along the southeast coast of Texas in late September, the federal government deployed a disaster response team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians to the city of Beaumont. Their mission was to assist state and local authorities treating injured animals and assessing the condition of the veterinary infrastructure in storm-damaged parts of the state.

Over the next five days, the 17 veterinarians and veterinary technicians staging at Ford Park, a 221-acre fairground, examined more than a hundred rescued animals. They also evaluated veterinary clinics, grooming operations, kennels, and stables across Jefferson, Hardin, Orange, and Liberty counties. On the final day of their deployment, team members delivered generators, purchased by the Texas VMA, to clinics without power.

Federal veterinary team deployed post-Rita raises questions

Veterinary-specific disaster relief operations have been conducted since 1993 when the AVMA instituted the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team program. Whereas the Humane Society of the United States and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are responsible for rescuing animals during natural and manmade disasters, the VMAT, of which there are four teams stationed throughout the country, is the only program recognized in the National Response Plan for providing veterinary treatment.

A formal agreement, or memorandum of understanding, between the AVMA and U.S. Public Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services describes the role and responsibilities of the VMATs within the federal disaster response program.

When disaster strikes, the National Disaster Medical System, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is responsible for deploying the VMATs along with teams of physicians, nurses, and morticians. Since 1995, the AVMA-sponsored teams have been mobilized to assist veterinary communities and offer oversight of animal- and public health-related issues, such as in aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Charlie, and as recently as Hurricane Katrina.

Yet the veterinary team operating in Texas from Sept. 27 until Oct. 1 wasn't a VMAT. In fact, few outside the NDMS even knew of the existence of an alternative program—the National Veterinary Response Team—until word spread about the team's brief deployment, which included two mobile veterinary clinics.

Katrina highlighted the importance of cooperation, communication, and coordination for an effective disaster response, and demonstrated the tragedy that results when those efforts break down.

"What we'd like is an explanation of the (NVRT) program," said Dr. Cindy Lovern, assistant director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division and the Association's liaison to the VMATs. "I am disappointed that a nonveterinarian formed a national veterinary response program without input from the national professional association or the VMAT members."

The nonveterinarian is NDMS Director Jack Beall, who took charge of the agency this year. During a phone conversation in early April, Beall told Dr. Lovern about his plan for a small, rapid assessment team of veterinary personnel deployed prior to or following a disaster.

"I told (Beall) rapid assessment can help only during disaster response, and that I was looking forward to working with him and the VMAT leadership in developing his idea. I informed Mr. Beall that this concept had been a topic of discussion for both VMAT and the AVMA Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues. However, I did mention concern regarding NDMS developing an unrelated veterinary program outside of VMAT and without consultation from AVMA.

"A divided, noncoordinated veterinary effort would not be in the best interest of the profession and would appear as an attempt to replace the existing VMAT program. He assured me that any new veterinary initiatives would be in consultation with VMAT and the AVMA, and that his idea was simply to have a few people at the beck and call of NDMS to help facilitate a VMAT deployment."

During a follow-up meeting on April 11 at AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., Beall reiterated his concept for the National Veterinary Response Team, as he called it. According to meeting minutes and attendees, the NDMS director described how the team would serve in an assessment and advisory capacity only, coordinating with local and state officials to determine whether a VMAT mission were warranted. He again reiterated that any new initiatives would be in consultation with the AVMA and VMAT leadership.

Another topic was the memorandum of understanding between the AVMA and Health and Human Services Department/U.S. PHS. Because President George W. Bush placed NDMS under the jurisdiction of FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security, the FEMA Office of General Counsel considers the agreement "null and void," necessitating a new arrangement between the AVMA and the Homeland Security Department.

Dr. Lovern quote

As a result, the AVMA revised the memorandum to reflect the new relationship and submitted it for legal review. On May 11, Beall sent a letter to Dr. Lyle Vogel, director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division, stating that the redrafted memorandum was still under review by FEMA general counsel. Beall also wrote, "We not only want to maintain our relationship with the AVMA, but strengthen it."

While the AVMA was still awaiting word about the memorandum, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. For the first time since their creation, all four VMATs were put on alert and placed in staging areas prior to a hurricane making landfall. Hurricane Rita struck next, and while VMAT members were rostered and awaiting deployment orders, news of the NVRT operation reached the AVMA.

"I think it's a sad thing," said Dr. Barry Kellogg, VMAT-1 deputy team commander and chair of the VMAT Program Leadership Committee. "(Beall) told us at the April meeting that he was going to utilize NVRT as a potential early assessment tool after a disaster to mobilize somebody quickly and put them in there, which had some sense to it.

"But we suspected at the time that he was just trying to circumvent the AVMA's involvement as far as the veterinary teams are concerned, and we were ultimately proven correct because that's actually what he's done."

Dr. Lovern added, "The new veterinary initiative may serve the interests of the veterinary profession and animal victims of disasters. However, we do not know anything about NVRT because Jack Beall has not discussed the details of the response team with AVMA or with VMAT leadership, as he had promised. The AVMA believes that a coordinated veterinary response is in the best interest of the profession, and our members who are victims of disasters."

For nearly a week, requests for an interview with Beall were made to the FEMA public relations office, and a list of questions for the NDMS director were e-mailed to the office. No response was forthcoming, however.

Dr. Scott Mason, a member of VMAT-3, was the veterinary liaison on the FEMA Management Support Team during Rita. The job of the MST is to coordinate with state and local officials regarding federal response teams in the field. Dr. Mason first learned about the NVRT on Sept. 22 when the team predeployed to Fort Worth, Texas, along with several Disaster Medical Assistance Teams and a Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. That a team similar in size and scope to a VMAT had been sent to a disaster area "was a surprise to everybody," he said.

"I apparently was the first (VMAT member) to learn of their predeployment, and I called (VMAT-3 Commander) Jim Hamilton and Cindy Lovern. Everybody was kind of taken aback," Dr. Mason said, adding, "The whole thing is just very bizarre; the NVRT was a surprise to everybody."

For a VMAT to be deployed, a state's emergency management agency must request federal assistance. According to Dr. Dawn Blackmar, director of veterinary public health with Harris County, Texas, Public Health and Environmental Services, her agency and the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made a joint appeal to the disaster district for veterinary assistance in Jefferson County.

Dr. Blackmar explained how in Texas the state is sectioned into Disaster Districts. When a request for assistance is made, the respective district head determines whether local resources are sufficient for the task. If not, a request is made of the state operations center. If state resources are found to be lacking, federal assistance then is sought.

"Our goal from the outset was to try to go in and assist the locals and get them back functioning as soon as possible, and we felt that a critical part of that goal was getting the veterinary community back up and running so they could see patients," Dr. Blackmar explained.

It isn't clear who at the federal level gave the order to make use of the NVRT rather than a VMAT. "I am too far down on the totem pole to know that answer; I have no idea," Dr. Mason admitted. He deferred the question to Dr. Meta Timmons, the veterinary officer who oversees the VMAT program for the NDMS. Dr. Timmons did not respond to an interview request.

By all accounts, the NVRT performed its Texas mission admirably. But the AVMA and VMAT program want answers. Beall had been invited to speak at the November meetings of the VMAT Program Leadership Committee and AVMA Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues. As of press time in late October, Beall had said he planned to attend.

Even though the AVMA isn't interested in a turf war with the NDMS, the incident has seriously strained relations between Beall's agency and the Association. Dr. Kellogg called the NVRT "a real slap in the face to the AVMA."

"This illustrates why the AVMA—the representative of the veterinary profession—needs to be in charge of this veterinary disaster response program," Dr. Kellogg said. "The AVMA will do what's best for the profession and the animals of this country."