Helping to prepare for the worst

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Dr. Brigid Elchos, deputy state veterinarian in Mississippi, said state teams that respond to animal emergencies are better prepared because of an AVMA program.

She noted that team members in Mississippi used training from that program to assess animal needs and available veterinary infrastructure following a tornado this April in east-central Mississippi.

Dr. Leslie E. Cole, who is the emergency coordinator in Arkansas and Oklahoma for the Veterinary Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the training delivered by AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team members to state and county animal response teams in Oklahoma “has been tremendously helpful and essential.” The Veterinary Services incident management teams have not taken the training, but they have benefited, as local animal response teams have been better able to collaborate with Veterinary Services during emergencies.

Aerial view of tornado destruction
Destruction from the May 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma (Courtesy of FEMA)

“I just hope that the VMATs continue to have training and local capacity building as one of their mandates,” Dr. Cole said. “I’ve witnessed the value of that personally here in the state of Oklahoma, and it has borne very wonderful fruit.”

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation funds VMAT activities through the Foundation's Saving the Whole Family program.

AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams were founded partly as a response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Since 2009, the program’s focus has shifted from disaster response toward helping state governments, primarily by training state and local teams in responding to emergencies and providing assessments of preparation and veterinary infrastructure. And the teams still can aid state governments during emergencies when requested.

The National Veterinary Response Team, which is under the Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary federal resource used to treat animals harmed by disasters.

Dr. Gerhardt G. Goemann, a VMAT commander and chair of the AVMA Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues, said emergency animal issues are also “people issues.”

“When we respond to a disaster, we’re really caring for people as much as we’re caring for the animals because of the emotional bond,” he said.

Dr. Elchos said Mississippi veterinary team members applied VMAT training, provided by Dr. Goemann, following the April 28 tornadoes, one of which killed 10 people and damaged and destroyed homes, farms, and industrial buildings along its path through Louisville, Mississippi. Reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration state that the tornado was on the ground for more than 34 miles and that it was part of a storm system that produced 21 confirmed tornadoes.

Because of the training, the state team members were better able to assess what veterinary care and animal sheltering capabilities were available, whether animals could be moved, whether animals were entering the affected area, and how state and local veterinary teams could help.

“Being able to do good assessments is extremely important to the success of the response,” Dr. Elchos said.

Dr. Goemann said he hopes the training he provides veterinarians helps them prepare for emergencies and understand how to aid during a disaster without increasing risk to themselves and fellow responders. And, when a hurricane or other disaster is looming, he hopes those veterinarians can help people evacuate animals so their owners do not stay behind.

Oklahoma residents also have shown more interest in preparing for animal-based needs when emergencies occur and in forming veterinary response teams since May 2013, when a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, Dr. Cole said. That tornado killed 24 people as well as killed animals and destroyed neighborhoods.

She thinks animal aspects of disasters re gaining recognition, and those who want to help are eager to find partners such as VMAT members.

“As training dollars from federal and state governments wane, the VMAT has a very important job in this local capacity building,” Dr. Cole said.

Dr. Christen L. Skaer, founder and president of the Sedgwick County Animal Response Team and past president of the Kansas State Animal Response Team, said VMAT members delivered the initial training and guidance that helped in forming both teams. VMAT members since have provided training that the organizations otherwise could not afford and helped the team members understand how to become involved during emergencies and fit into response plans.

“Learning how to behave with the other disaster responders and be taken seriously is a big deal,” Dr. Skaer said.

Dr. Elchos noted that few organizations offer training in veterinary medical response.

“Many times, agencies such as ours are not given resources, really, to do the kind of responses that a lot of these disasters require,” Dr. Elchos said. “And having an ability to be supported on that level by this profession and having that education, expertise available, and having people willing to come and assist is incredible.

“And we’ve always felt that VMAT has been a tremendous resource in whichever capacity it has been made available.”

The Department of Homeland Security is promoting disaster preparation during September, which the department designated as National Preparedness Month through a project started in 2003.

September is National Preparedness Month.

AVMA resources on disaster preparedness are available here.

The federal government provides information on preparedness here.

These resources include guidance for veterinarians and clients; digital copies of all materials are available free through the site.