From training to response: 20 years of VMAT

Educational program VMAT U launched at convention
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The AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams have reached a milestone this year with their 20th anniversary.

AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams gather to celebrate the program’s 20th anniversary during the AVMA Annual Convention. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

Practically all the current VMAT volunteer members were on hand for a presentation during the AVMA Annual Convention July 21 in Chicago, where they were honored for their service.

Outgoing AVMA President Douglas G. Aspros lauded them for their commitment and for “taking the Veterin­arian’s Oath to another level.”

Dr. Eia addresses VMAT members
Dr. Cheryl L. Eia, an assistant director in the AVMA Scientific Activities Division and coordinator of emergency preparedness and response, addresses VMAT members during the launch of VMAT U. (Photo by Malinda Larkin)

Those who have served more than 15 years on a VMAT or who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hurricanes Katrina or Rita in 2005, or Hurricane Sandy this past year were recognized. VMAT members also are members of national, state, and local animal response organizations.

On July 20, Dr. Cheryl L. Eia, an assistant director in the AVMA Scientific Activities Division and coordinator of emergency preparedness and response, and VMAT members unveiled the new VMAT U program during a daylong symposium.

“VMAT U is the result of the success of our training program,” Dr. Eia said. “This is formalizing and standardizing our training, and expanding it, too.”

Topics covered by VMAT U include hazardous materials, occupational safety, risk communication, leadership, critical incident stress management, veterinary assessment, and triage.

This year, VMATs hosted a decontamination training session at the Student AVMA Symposium at Louisiana State University and a program on caring for oil-covered waterfowl at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. A few members hosted decontamination training sessions in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla., a few weeks after convention.

James Aiello of Southwest Ranches, Fla., is one of the animal decontamination specialists on VMAT 2. He’s responded to numerous hurricanes in Florida in the past decade or so.

Aiello says his work is important, because even many of the HAZMAT experts he encounters during disasters do not have a policy on how to treat animals, let alone know how to work with them in the first place. This is critical, because, for example, working dogs each cost about $35,000 to train “and there’s no one there to take care of them during disasters. ... A pillar’s been left out of the response efforts,” Aiello said.

A number of the VMAT U training modules are a direct result of collaboration with the National Veterinary Response Team program of the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System.

VMAT members developed the courses a few years ago, but they hadn’t been updated in some time.

Dr. Ty J. Vannieuwenhoven, chief veterinary officer for the National Disaster Medical System, secured funding to refresh and update older modules as well as create additional ones when he came on board two years ago.

“My vision was to make this training available broadly and for it to capture national animal response standards to not only make NVRT better but to strengthen the capabilities of the communities that we support as well as our response partners,” such as the VMATs, he told JAVMA News.

The VMATs originated in the wake of Hurricane Andrew when the AVMA and DHHS entered into a memorandum of understanding, making VMATs part of the federal response plan.

A year later, the AVMA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, engaging VMATs to assist with outbreaks of foreign animal diseases and emerging animal diseases.

Since then, VMAT members have deployed to numerous emergencies, including Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the World Trade Center in 2001, and hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The program evolved in 2008 after changes in federal law that created two complementary programs: AVMA VMATs and the DHHS National Veterinary Response Teams. This was also when the VMATs began to focus on state assistance and strengthening their training component.

From the beginning, the AVMA and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation have supported VMAT efforts. The AVMF alone has donated more than $1 million to the VMAT program.

Dr. John R. Brooks, AVMF vice chair, said he sees VMAT members becoming more involved with the AVMF’s “Saving the Whole Family” disaster preparedness efforts as the VMAT program starts its next 20 years.

For more information about the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, click here or follow @AVMAVMAT on Twitter.