AVMA Answers

Published on December 01, 2005
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AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams
Q:  When did the AVMA start the VMAT program and why?
Dr. Cindy Lovern, assistant director of the AVMA Scientific Activities Division and liaison to the AVMA
Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, responds:   
A:   Talks between the AVMA and the federal government began after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, destroying the veterinary infrastructure and leaving thousands of animals dead or displaced. It was then that the AVMA utilized an existing governmental framework and organized veterinary health professionals into Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams. These teams would help animals during a disaster the same way Disaster Medical Assistance Teams provide medical aid to human casualties.
The AVMA's disaster preparedness and response efforts came into being with an agreement between the Association and the Office of Emergency Preparedness of the U.S. Public Health Service. With the signing of a memorandum of understanding in May 1993, veterinary services became incorporated into the Federal Response Plan—now the National Response Plan—for disaster relief as part of the National Disaster Medical System. The NDMS provides supplemental medical care to victims of catastrophic disasters when state and local resources are overwhelmed.
In August 1994, the AVMA and Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service signed a memorandum of understanding authorizing the VMATs to assist the USDA during animal disease outbreaks.
Then in January 1998, the AVMA and American Veterinary Medical Foundation signed a statement of understanding with the American Red Cross in which the American Red Cross recognizes the AVMA and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation as the only national organizations representing the entire U.S. profession of licensed veterinarians. As such, the AVMA is solely responsible for the diagnosis, treatment, health, and well-being of all animals, including during periods designated as disaster relief.

Q:  How many VMATs are there, and where are they based?
A:   There are four teams, based in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, and North Carolina. Team members live around the country, and each team can respond to disasters anywhere in the country or in the U.S. territories.

Q:  How many members are on a VMAT, and what is its composition?
A:   The Department of Homeland Security has requested that each VMAT consist of 66 members, allowing for three complete rotations. What that means is the deployment of a full VMAT team working under the Incident Command System requires 22 individuals. Each team should have enough team members to be able to rotate the original team two times.

The teams are made up of veterinarians from private/public practice, including wildlife/exotic/aquatic medicine, and specialties such as toxicology, pathology, surgery, and emergency and critical care. There are also veterinary technicians, epidemiologists, wildlife experts, and other medical and academic professionals, and support personnel. VMATs are designed to respond to large-scale disasters, but they can respond to smaller, local disasters and have been deployed for national security events.

Q:  What training do VMAT members have?
A:   Each member has hazardous material training, which includes dealing with chemical and biologic agents. They are also able to assist the government if a foreign animal disease were to emerge in this country. Other areas of training include emergency care, austere animal triage and life support, wildlife capture/restraint/handling, animal transport, treating of working animals, personal survival skills, personal protective equipment, food and water safety, carcass disposal, disease diagnostics, sample collection and processing, and humane euthanasia.

Q:  What is the procedure to deploy a VMAT?
A:   Typically, when the president declares a disaster, as President George W. Bush did with Hurricane Katrina, local and/or state officials determine the need for veterinary assistance. This decision is to be made in consultation with the state veterinarian, state public health veterinarian, state VMA, USDA area emergency coordinator, and USDA area veterinarian-in-charge.

A request for a VMAT deployment must be channeled through the appropriate chain of command; this may include the state coordinating officer, federal coordinating officer, and principal federal official. A VMAT deployment has to be approved by the state Emergency Management Agency. Going through any other route to obtain VMAT deployment will be unsuccessful. State officials must then submit an Action Request Form for approval at the federal level.

If approved by state and federal officials, the request for VMAT assistance will be forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency. If VMAT assistance is approved, the VMATs will be deployed as a DHS resource as part of the National Disaster Medical System. Once deployed, the VMATs operate under the direction and control of the DHS/FEMA/NDMS, not the AVMA. Furthermore, the state might be responsible for up to 25 percent of the cost of using federal services.

Q:  What does a VMAT do during a deployment?
A:   The mission of the VMATs is to assist the local veterinary community with the care of animals and to provide veterinary oversight and advice concerning animal-related issues and public health during a disaster or following a request from an appropriate agency. Each affected state actually assigns the VMAT its specific mission, and the VMAT members answer to state officials in addition to NDMS personnel when deployed. The federal government works for the state government during disasters, not the other way around.

VMAT responsibilities are extensive. Teams could be called on for the following: assessment of the animal care infrastructure; veterinary diagnosis, triage, treatment, and stabilization; establishment of a veterinary field hospital; food and water safety; multihazard assessment, risk reduction and response; biologic and chemical exposure surveillance; animal decontamination; medical supervision/treatment of response/service animals; supervision of animal care and production facilities; training assistance for local and state assets assigned to animal issues; provision of supplemental veterinary care for overwhelmed local veterinarians; animal disease surveillance; zoonosis surveillance and public health assessment; humane euthanasia or its supervision; animal mortality management; and animal capture, restraint, and transport.

Q:  What are common misconceptions about the VMAT?
A:   The two most common misconceptions are that VMAT members rescue and shelter animals and that the AVMA is responsible for sending the teams out to disaster sites.

VMATs provide medical care to animal victims of disasters. The teams are not missioned to provide animal rescue or animal shelter. Team members do assist humane organizations at animal shelters set up to provide veterinary medical care that is needed, however. Humane organizations have trained and certified people very capable of animal rescue. Although some VMAT members are trained in animal rescue, it is not the mission of VMAT, nor are VMAT members, as a whole, trained to do animal rescue. The reason an animal rescue and sheltering mission has not been given to VMAT is that many humane organizations perform these functions very well and work with VMAT—usually under the direction of the state veterinarian—to obtain the needed medical treatment for the animals. The groups work together to address each piece of the disaster puzzle.

It also needs to be clarified that once the president declares a disaster, the AVMA releases the VMAT program to the Department of Homeland Security. It is the National Disaster Medical System—operating under FEMA within the DHS—that actually deploys the teams to the disaster location. VMATs do not self-deploy, nor does the AVMA deploy a VMAT. The NDMS will not deploy a VMAT unless the affected state specifically asks for veterinary assistance, and that is done only if the local veterinary infrastructure is overwhelmed.

Once deployed, a VMAT stays at a disaster site only until the local veterinary infrastructure is operational again, and then it leaves so as not to take away business from local practitioners.

Q:  What are the relationships of the AVMA and American Veterinary Medical Foundation with the VMAT program?
A:   The AVMA submits a yearly grant request to the AVMF for funding of the AVMA disaster program, which includes the VMAT program. Each VMAT must submit an annual report of what it did, what it plans to do in the upcoming year, how its money was spent, and what it needs money for. The AVMA grant request is developed according to the VMAT annual reports. The AVMF then decides from within its governance structure whether to award the AVMA a grant for that year for the disaster program and, if so, how much the grant should be.

Once the AVMA gets the AVMF grant, the money is applied toward VMAT expenses including equipment, training, meetings, and travel; a VMAT volunteer insurance policy; and the production of disaster/preparedness materials. The AVMF funds essentially support the AVMA disaster program, and the AVMA oversees direct VMAT funding issues.

Of the funding the AVMF has awarded to the AVMA since 1997, $616,449.70 has gone to the VMATs directly. By year's end, the VMATs will have received up to an additional $100,000 for hurricane supplies and $80,000 for remaining 2005 expenses, bringing the VMAT total funding to $796,449.70.