Rescuing animals has always been an activity of the fire service, often attracting an element of mirth when considering the age-old plight of cats up trees! 2018 heralds the 10th anniversary of the UK National Fire Chiefs Council Animal Rescue Practitioners Forum, a collaboration between fire services, vets and welfare organisations, charged with formalising our approach to the rescue of animals.
Through this process, language has evolved to reflect the importance of being prepared for the presence of animals, not just at traditional rescues but in every operational context. Animals are a ‘crosscutter’, and whatever category of incident is being planned for, their presence will impact on human behaviour, resourcing, safety and decision making. Over 50% of the UK public own pets, offering a 50-50 chance of animals being present at every incident attended, from road incident to domestic fire, hazmat to high-rise, medical call to wide-scale fire and flooding. Dealing with animals, therefore, should be a routine consideration for planning and response.
For 15 of my 22 years in the British fire and rescue service (FRS) I have been involved with developing practices to deal with the animal component. Whilst this was not on my horizon when beginning my career, I am very proud of the part I have played in supporting the development of UK response to animal incidents. The UK is in a good place with 90% of FRS’s having a large animal rescue team and working to national guidelines. But we still have a long way to go to support our firefighters, other first responders and veterinarians on the frontline. This belief was reinforced during my recent 12 months in California, working at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
California is no stranger to disaster, whether fire, flood or earthquake. I arrived during one of the wettest winters on record: the Oroville Dam had reached capacity, and when erosion of the auxiliary spillway meant a breach was likely, 180,000 people were evacuated with little warning. The catastrophe of a breach would have caused a wall of water that would impact Sacramento, 2 hours below. Butte County is home to the North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG) led by retired fire captain John Maretti. This group of volunteers is well organised and provides evacuation and sheltering for most species. They were established following a fatality during a wildfire where a firefighter had to escape a house that was engulfed by fire leaving the occupant, who refused to leave without her animals. Groups like NVADG have a role in supporting the animal component of major incidents as skills and understanding of the often-complex needs of an incident involving animals is currently not engrained in the preparedness or response culture of most first-responder organisations internationally.
Spending time in California was an opportunity to see another culture with different organisational structures and potentially a whole different set of needs. Valuable work is going on there with a State Fire Marshall approved animal technical rescue course available to those who choose it and veterinary training through the University of California’s Veterinary Emergency Response Team.
But whilst the need for planning and training is obvious to those of us who are immersed in the subject, it is the impact on both communities and responders that needs to be understood by response organisations and emergency planners, coupled with solutions that clearly meet their role-specific needs. I felt my contribution was to support those discussions and present solutions based on the operational needs of the organisation.
As an example, I worked closely with UC Davis Fire Department to consider their operational animal risks. UC Davis has a student population of around 34,000. As well as the campus, UC Davis FD respond to the wider city of Davis and major freeways, provide mutual aid to local counties and respond as a state-wide wildfire strike team. I observed all the traditional risk profiles they might encounter, but became immediately aware of the potential for animal issues. In the middle of the campus is a herd of dairy cows, a breeding barn for equine reproduction and an abattoir. Next to the university airfield is a swine facility and beef cattle unit. There are sheep and goat facilities, a primate and raptor centre. Some facilities have research horses, llamas and cows, dogs and cats; there is an equine athletic performance laboratory, equestrian centre, centre for equine health – plus the world-renowned large and small veterinary teaching hospitals. Public events occur regularly at animal facilities and special guests such as the Budweiser Clydesdales were often present. So, there was a clear opportunity and historical evidence to suggest that incidents might involve loose livestock, fires in animal facilities, entrapments and road transportation.
Over the years I have found it easier for firefighters to understand animal risks by comparing them to dealing with a ‘hazmat’ situation. Large animals in distress should be viewed as if approaching an unpredictable and possibly volatile hazmat situation where initial actions could de-escalate or equally exacerbate the situation if not fully considered or understood. Hazard awareness, initial actions, resourcing and command and control are essential elements that first responders need to have.
With such a diverse population of animals on campus came the luxury of a complete package for development of skills. Yes, we carried out training in the rescue of trapped animals, but first the programme began a journey to understand aspects of animal behaviour, psychology and handling/movement considerations, which would help determine risk and form tactical plans.
Following an introduction to safety when dealing with animals which ranged from physical injury to biological exposure we looked at the differences in dealing with common large animals such as pigs, sheep, cattle and equines. Behaviour and risk fluctuates with variables such as the operational environment, injury, herd security, maternal instinct and secondary sex characteristics. Raising awareness and seeing first-hand how the various species require different approaches and how situations with animals can escalate instantly with serious consequences was the key take-home message from this training. Firefighters quickly began to read a situation, plan for the chosen outcome and anticipate likely problems arising. We played out scenarios such as managing loose livestock, controlling evacuation from animal housing and loading animals for transportation.
Within days it seemed this training was put to good use during a mutual aid call to provide structure protection during a grass fire. With 6in vegetation around a barn, firefighters knew the structure was at imminent risk but contained livestock. They now understood how to evacuate the animals, what containment was required and likely behavioural responses. This confidence led to a rapid assessment, plan and action which saved all those that were viable rescues.
State firefighters who responded to the Oroville Dam emergency were struck by the sheer magnitude of the animal issue, should the breach have occurred. I was approached by the organisers of Urban Shield, a multi-agency resilience competition, to devise and lead a rescue scenario for 14 Urban Search and Rescue teams competing over two days in the San Francisco Bay area. This event tests technical rescue skills, but most had not previously received any formal animal technical rescue training and were largely unprepared for the additional issues surrounding animal and human behaviour. Wanting this to be a positive experience for the teams, we set out to create an informative session that would allow them to achieve the task but learn along the way. The scenario was a horse fallen in a canyon that required anaesthetising and winching to safety. Dr Claudia Sonder, veterinarian from UC Davis, together with the Alameda Sheriff’s Posse, introduced firefighters to the behaviour and risks associated with horses and each firefighter had the opportunity to interact with live animals, many for the first time. Together with Nate Hartinger and Michael Payne from UC Davis and John and Deb Fox from the Large Animal Rescue Company, we gave an overview of safety around recumbent animals, how to interact with the animal owners, veterinarian and other responders and prepare a tactical plan. Then we demonstrated how to physically manoeuvre a large animal onto a rescue glide for extraction. With the scene set and Sheriff’s Posse in full character mode, each scenario was completed successfully within time and all participants recognised the range of skills needed to tackle what is always a dynamic incident.
Another challenge concerned small animal pre-veterinary care. EMS Chiefs were asking for training as first responders often give life-saving care to pets suffering from smoke inhalation or other injuries resulting from fires and road collisions. Whilst it is straightforward to transfer basic human life-saving medical skills to animals, there remains the hazard of a fearful and aggressive dog or cat inflicting injury on those attempting to help. To compound the problem, it became apparent that to provide immediate care such as oxygen, first responders would contravene the veterinary practice act and technically break the law! So, we established a team to facilitate an amendment to state law in order to protect first responders when choosing to carry out these activities.
Wildfires sweeping through the famous wine regions of Napa and Sonoma brought issues closer to home. Friends lost houses, colleagues were evacuated, many responded operationally and supporters of our project were directly impacted by the fires. This event demonstrated the scale of logistics and preparedness required to cope with evacuating, sheltering and protecting so many animals. The effects of these fires were devastating and at the centre of the activity were animals with injury, displacement and welfare needs that became more evident as time went on. I supported the Veterinary Emergency Response Team where we carried out tasks such as rescuing a horse collapsed in a trailer, provided welfare checks for livestock and rounded up llamas requiring evacuation. Firefighters consistently interacted with stressed animals during these fires, many of whom were injured, fearful and disorientated.
The fires were barely over when we hosted a joint UC Davis and BARTA international conference to highlight the very issues that had been encountered during my year. Over 100 delegates came from across the world to network and share their journeys to support improved preparedness.
So, on reflection how do I conclude that we still have a long way to go with the development of preparedness for Incidents Involving Animals?
Firefighters will continue to respond to communities in distress and communities will continue to cohabit and own animals whether for pleasure or commercial reasons. Police Officers will encounter animals on the roads, medics will interact with animals in the home, people will expect to evacuate their animals from fire or flood and animals will always become trapped, requiring rescue and veterinary support – these events are inevitable. There is an increasing understanding of animal challenges and risks by emergency planners, first responders and the public. Skills required are often simple in concept, but equipping responders to deal with such a varied and dynamic set of risks is more challenging. BARTA’s role will be increasingly important in setting standards and providing expertise in this developing subject area. It will be interesting to look back in another ten years to view progress and see how much more we have learnt.
For more information, go to www.hantsfire.gov.uk
Top image: Rescue techniques have been devised based on safety and welfare with control measures achieved through prompt veterinary attendance.