Eight years ago a horse died during the shift of Capt. John Fox of the Felton, Calif., Fire Protection District. The horse had fallen into a crevice on a trail ride, and none of the emergency responders had the training to get it out. Fox, a firefighter and longtime horse owner, was distraught. In response, he and his wife, Debra, a firefighter/paramedic, spearheaded the area's first Large Animal Rescue (LAR) and training program.

Courtesy Sharon Liveten

The training program helps firefighters develop a standardized response to large animal rescue

Midway through a conversation with Capt. Fox about the LAR, the dispatcher's alarm in their home rang, and moments later, he and Debra were out the door. Just an average "day off" in the life of a firefighter. But the LAR unit is anything but typical. Most fire and emergency responders have no training for dealing with horse problems, such as barn fires or van and trail accidents. A lot of fire companies don't think it is necessary.

"Getting this program started was a struggle," said Fox. "So many fire department personnel don't get horses. They don't understand why we can't just shoot them if they're hurt and there's an accident and be done with it. For the first few years, people laughed at us, and we were the butt of jokes. But the reality is that at any accident scene, the fire department is usually called first."

It took a lot of convincing by Fox and Chief Art Cota of California's State Fire Training before the Felton LAR was created. And that was the easy part. When Felton's LAR began, LAR was almost uncharted territory in the United States. (Now, Clemson University also has a well-respected training program.) The Foxes combed the Internet looking for information and discovered the most complete information on LAR came from British fire departments, where two days of large animal rescue are part of basic training. The Foxes learned what they could and improvised the rest.

"The good news," said Fox, "is that most of the basic equipment is standard fire department equipment. You could take the ideas and equipment for basic trench rescues and transfer that to horses. Things we are already trained to do could be adapted. We called on people who had backgrounds in heavy rescue. They helped us transfer and adapt that knowledge for horses, but it took a lot of time. We worked with a trailer—I don't know how many times we flipped that trailer to perfect a system of righting it. The more rescues we go on, the more we learn."

Fox's original plan was to teach his techniques throughout the Felton district. The pilot class was attended by Division Chief Keith Larking. A horse lover and former director of the state's Fire Curriculum Development, Larking was reeling from working a van accident with an attempted rescue so chaotic it was a miracle no firefighters were killed. The Foxes' class impressed him, and Larking gave them a directive to develop LAR curriculum and training for firefighters throughout California.
The Felton LAR program consists of one eight-hour day of training, with an optional second day of training in real scenarios. The courses begin with basic explanations of horse behavior since most of the people attending have no equine background. After they learn the basics, they move on to rope techniques such as slings and righting mechanisms. The class prepares attendees—usually firefighters, emergency responders, policemen, vets, and horse owners—for van, road, and trail accidents. They don't spend much time on barn fires because, Fox said, "We don't have a lot of barns up here. But we do tell people not to lock up their tack and not to lock stall doors or paddock gates."

If the attendees have time, they stay for a second day and play with Lucky. Designed by Debra, Lucky is a life-sized, fully articulated, full-weight horse mannequin. He's perfect for emergency training.

Said John, "We can put him into trailers and flip them; we can go anyplace and re-create an accident. (He) gives students hands-on experience."

The Foxes have taught more than 25 classes, and recently drove to Orange County, Calif., to train one of the county's fire companies in LAR. That company had been dispatched to an accident with a tragic outcome and wanted to prevent such disasters in the future.

According to John, that is how most fire departments become interested in LAR; they have a horrible experience and don't want to repeat it.

"John's vision when he started this," said Debra, "was to develop an educated, standardized response to LAR. His hope was that at least one fire department in every county would get the education and training. We have a way to go, but it's starting."

Sharon Liveten is a freelance writer and publicist based in Los Angeles. For more information on Felton Fire Department's LAR classes, visit www.largeanimalrescue.com or contact the department at TLAR@go.net.

About the Author

Sharon Liveten

Sharon Liveten is a free-lance writer and publicist based in Los Angeles.

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