From data loss to explosions: how practices can prepare for disasters

Published on August 29, 2018
Flooded neighborhood
Flooding after Hurricane Harvey

Dr. Warren J. Hess didn't think much about disaster preparedness until his mobile practice exploded, with him inside.

Dr. Hess, now an assistant director of the AVMA Division of Animal and Public Health who works on disaster issues, spoke briefly about his experience as part of his presentation "Best Practices for Disaster Practice and Recovery: How to Save Your Practice" on July 14 at AVMA Convention 2018 in Denver.

In 1996, he was operating a mobile clinic out of a specialized motor home. One Saturday morning while he worked in the clinic, which was parked in his driveway, the vehicle blew up, putting him both out of business and into burn treatment and physical therapy.

Dr. Hess later joined the Utah state veterinarian's office, founded the Utah Emergency Animal Response Coalition, and co-developed a training program in large animal rescue.

"Maybe we ought to think about the resiliency of our practice as much as we think about some other aspects of maintaining our practices," Dr. Hess said. It can be overwhelming to think about being prepared for a Hurricane Maria or a wildfire that takes out a section of town, he said, but practices can take a number of reasonable steps to become more resilient.

Dr. Hess described another example of an unexpected disaster involving Stuebner Airline Veterinary Hospital in Spring, Texas, outside Houston. The practice is 66 miles from the coast but still flooded and had to evacuate animals during Hurricane Harvey last year.

All veterinary staff members should have their own personal or family disaster plan, Dr. Hess said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers resources at www.ready.gov.

Many businesses that face a major natural disaster never reopen or are forced to close within two years. Many businesses that face a major fire fail within a year, and more fail within three years. Many businesses that face a data loss for 10 days or longer go into bankruptcy immediately or within a year.

Dr. Hess outlined the following six components of a continuity-of-operations plan:

  • Program management.
  • Planning.
  • Implementation.
  • Education and training.
  • Exercises, tests, and evaluations.
  • Program maintenance and improvement.

One key to success is assigning a program coordinator. Practices also should develop, implement, and manage a plan for records management.

In veterinary-specific disaster planning, practices should determine whether they have access to the materials needed to safely move and transport all the animals in their facility with short notice. Practices also should identify an alternate site for their facility and plan for power disruption.

The staff members at Stuebner Airline Veterinary Hospital were unable to return to their building for months. The practice had no alternate arrangements but made provisions to see clients at another facility. The practice is back in business now.

The AVMA offers resources on disaster planning for practices and clients. The AVMA also has developed a course that gets into the nitty-gritty of how to deploy a robust practice plan. The course is an in-person lecture series that can be delivered to state or regional VMAs, available on request by contacting whessatavma [dot] org (Dr. Hess), and is being considered for future online modules.

Another key resource is the National Fire Protection Association's document NFPA 1600 on business continuity. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has adopted NFPA 1600 as a voluntary consensus standard for emergency preparedness.


September is National Preparedness Month. Resources are available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from the AVMA, and from the National Fire Protection Association.

Related JAVMA content:

AVMF steps up with $200,000 after onslaught of disasters (May 1, 2018)

Devastation in Puerto Rico (Nov. 15, 2017)

Rescuing animals across fire lines, inside shelters (Nov. 15, 2017)

Veterinarians defy Hurricane Harvey (Oct. 15, 2017)

AVMA donates $100,000 to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts (Oct. 1, 2017)