Disaster Training for Veterinarians Pays Off

So how do veterinarians who teach school, give dogs rabies shots, and work on lame horses get ready for something like Hurricane Katrina? These folks don’t work in HAZMAT suits in their normal jobs. Most have never been in situations where there are contaminants that could affect their lives.

As in all other aspects of their lives, veterinarians who work in disaster and rescue have specialized training. Fortunately for those animals and people left in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some veterinarians had been given hands-on training in dealing with hazardous situations, including decontamination of large and small animals. Following is a report from that training, along with images of the veterinarians at work. View images here.

From July 31 thru Aug. 1, ten members of the U.S. Army East Coast SMART-V (Special Medical Assessment Team-Veterinary) and 50 VMAT (Veterinary Medical Assistance Team) team members conducted a mock deployment and animal decontamination field training exercise (FTX) at Ft. Bragg, NC. Mr. Gomes, Chief, Ambulance Service, Womack Army Medical Center, and members of DMAT-1 NC provided HAZMAT and DECON support and training for the exercise, and Dr. Michael Fielder of the Ft. Bragg Veterinary Services Branch coordinated logistical support of the exercise, a monumental feat.

Their training goals emphasized individual deployment to a field location; transportation and deployment of items from the VMAT Federal Cache of equipment and training aids; logistical preparedness; establishing a field bivouac and field Veterinary Hospital; promoting inter-operability and command/control between the various teams; and practicing the Incident Command System and communication capabilities.

The exercise specifically focused on the practice of hands-on procedures and techniques for triage and decontamination of large and small animals in a simulated Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) exposure scenario response. This was intended to be a familiarization level exercise to allow teams to learn each other’s capabilities (assessment, expertise, manpower, equipment, etc.) and to identify shortages and equipment needs.

The first evening, teams worked together to unload the cache of equipment and raised 5 large shelter tents for sleeping, eating and a field hospital and then lived in the field environment on MREs for the FTX. They attended training in Base of Operations, Hazardous Materials, The decontamination teams practiced with mock stuffed animals to get their procedures and techniques down, then began gross decontamination of live military working dogs, a llama and 3 horses. Members realized how important having the right equipment,

The global war on terror continues to present the possibility of attack to the agricultural infrastructure of the United States. Recent events in Great Britain and Egypt demonstrate that Al-Quiada and other terrorist groups are again focusing on coalition targets outside of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In the event of another attack on U.S. soil, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and certain elements of the Department of Defense will likely work close together in handling this situation. Biologic agent events, specifically agro-terrorism, remain a likely approach of terrorist attack on this country. All agencies and animal health organizations must be prepared to work closely together in the event of such an incident to prevent or respond to the situation in an efficient and safe manner. (In fact, Louisiana State University offers a course to veterinarians, emergency management and other animal health professionals at http://www.in.gov/dhs/training/ag_terror.pdf )

The VMAT teams are part of the National Disaster Medical System under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tasked under Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Originally made up of volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians, they now are considered deployable on-demand federal employees. Their mission is to provide veterinary medical care, food and water safety assessment, disease surveillance to protect both animal health and public health, animal decontamination, and to assist in animal euthanasia and carcass disposal. They work with other humane and animal rescue organizations to coordinate rescue and sheltering of individual animals, but normally do not perform animal rescue missions.

VMAT members have been deployed to real-world missions after the New York Twin Towers disaster and the avian influenza concern in Virginia, and they have provided veterinary medical support to the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF), and Secret Service canine and equine teams at staged events (Olympics, Republican and Democratic National Conventions and Presidential inauguration). Members of VMAT-1, 2, and 3 and SMART-V flew or drove in from all over the country to attend this field training exercise.

The SMART-V Teams are a made up of soldiers from Veterinary Command (VETCOM) of the US Army with a mission of providing assessment and augmentation to civilian and military authorities during natural disasters, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive (CBRNE) Events, or agricultural terror crisis.

It is important that training deployments of VMAT and SMART-V teams be accomplished, simulating real-world conditions of minimal resources, operational intensity, and working under degrading environmental influences. Since the VMAT members are civilians, they do not get the opportunity to practice field operational conditions except once a year during training exercises.

The exercise met all of its mission objectives, and in some areas exceeded expectations of the team leaders. All of the team members and leaders felt that the quality of the training and the lessons learned will provide excellent building blocks for the foundation of future joint training exercises and at levels of increasing complexity. It is expected that this exercise will lead to annual joint training exercises to further promote the interoperability between federal and military veterinary assets and be used as a model for other joint ventures between military and federal teams of similar types.

Update: 15 September 2005. This exercise was crucial to preparing the VMAT teams for their deployment to all areas of the Hurricane Katrina Disaster zone. In some cases they had to put on HAZMAT suits and breathing apparatus to remove dead animals from facilities. All the team members lived in the field in tents and ate MREs on their deployment, without AC or electricity for several days. Preparedness, training and practice paid off!

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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