Author: Ed Feinberg, DVM

What the federal alphabet soup means to animals in a disaster

Progress in disaster care comes in spurts.  For those concerned with animals and how they survive disasters (which by the way means at least half the public), it comes even more sporadically.  One major impetus was Hurricane Andrew in August, 1992.   As a result of that calamity, the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) was formed. Thousands of physicians, nurses, physician assistants and emergency responders along with veterinarians and veterinary assistants (in VMAT) units became part of it.

Another impetus was 9/11.  The fear and chaos that a successful major terrorist event causes can stimulate dissolution of society’s fabric.  But it can also galvanize society to more successfully prepare for future calamity.  While the jury may be out on how effectively our nation responded in the aftermath, it clearly was galvanized to action.  Thus Homeland Security was formed and many activities within FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other branches of the government were juggled around. Certainly the local animal response team I lead in Westchester would not have emerged without 9/11 and the grants it provoked.

The most recent spurt was the 2005 hurricanes especially Katrina. As a responder in Katrina and a victim in Wilma I can readily attest to the ability or lack of it that governments in both places exhibited.  As a result of those misfortunes and the inability of the federal government as well as the authorities in Louisiana and Mississippi to adequately prepare for and respond to those events, there has been considerable change in the rules and administration of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), NDMS, and FEMA.  NDMS (including the VMATs)  will move back to the Department of Health and Human Services in January of 2007, which should help restore its effectiveness.

Other changes have occurred.  Thousands of pets were abandoned in New Orleans and Mississippi.  Many times pet owners were faced with “leave your pets behind or stay behind.” Many of those pets drowned.  And a lot of people who would not abandon their pets drowned also.  (Having personally helped locate and remove many dead animals from low lying pet shelters and animal hospitals, I can still not remove the odor and revulsion completely from my memory).  Congress has responded.  So have many state legislatures.  Both the federal government and the state of New York this fall  have enacted legislation under the acronym PETS - Pet Evacuation and Transportation  Standards Act. State and local emergency plans must now take into account the needs of individuals with pets and service animals.  The intent is to make it possible for people to find shelter with their animals and evacuation plans must consider this.

On a local level, we have been discussing and trying to implement collocated pet shelters.  These would be adjacent to human shelters and the people who bring their pets to them would be staying in the adjacent shelters.  They would then care for their own animals.  The federal government and New York State have both passed these laws without actually funding them..  In other words they have not, as yet, planned to pay for them.  Worse, despite the name, they did not create specific standards that have to be met. Anyone who has dealt with local emergency managers knows that these managers do not go out of their way to spend their limited resources unnecessarily and unless they are forced to,  will not put pet evacuation high on their planning activities.   Local kennel clubs, pet groups, and animal lovers should continue to lobby for the placement of these services and the funding they require. In short PETS has been approved but is not yet here!

Hurricane Andrew depended on thousands of volunteers, many of whom were self deployed and untrained, for the rescue of displaced pets in southern Florida..  The resultant turmoil lead to duplication of efforts, inefficiencies, and injury and death not only for abandoned pets but worse - for rescuers themselves. (A responders first goal - stay safe, come home well.)

Over the last fourteen years, the federal government has made the likelihood of near pandemonium less likely (even Katrina was more a problem of ineptitude then chaos) with the development of NDMS and the Incident Command System, or ICS.  ICS is a management system that can expand to infinite size or contract to a single individual.  All emergency responders are required to have enough training to ensure that when deployed (positioned) in an emergency they will be able to do their job properly.  They  know who to report to, who to work for, where to be, and how to be safe.  They take orders but have initiative.  They understand the chain of command, understand what others are saying and doing, and know how to care for themselves so they do not return home injured or dead.  It reduces duplication of effort and creates what is called management by objectives.  The system was development by the national wildfire agency and has spread to be used by every federal, state, and local agency in emergency response.  In current and future disasters, self deployed people will be extremely limited and people without ICS training should stay home.  Only those animal rescue groups that have prior understandings with the federal or local authorities well in place will be allowed in to disaster areas.  Those groups train and credential volunteer responders. (This is true of people oriented rescue groups as well). For the most part, this was well in evidence in Katrina.  Despite the inability of the federal and state and local governments to meet their obligations, rescuers, unlike both Andrew and 911, did not contribute significantly to the problem. Numerous humane organizations and animal response agencies were on the scene with trained and credentialed volunteers.

So, okay, your home town has a hurricane blow through and the damage is extensive but local.  Who calls out the responders and how?  While there may be some state to state differences, it usually starts on a local town or village level.  In some states it may start on a county level.  If local resources are overwhelmed, the state authorities ask the feds to help.  For animal problems, it is the State Veterinarian who works with USDA and or VMATs to deploy and channel federal resources.  Agencies with local, state or federal Memorandums of Understandings (You’s) are allowed in using trained and credentialled people.  If your local town or county has an animal response team, it will be called on.  You can be there if you have taken the time to become a part of the team, get the ICS and other training, and become credentialled.

To further develop our ability to respond as a nation, we have instituted a National Incident Management System.  NIMS tracks resources and people, coordinates local, state and national efforts, and supervises progress in a national disaster.  It insures that localities, states and federal agencies, all using ICS can communicate technically and use common language and meanings.  It develops a common information distribution system  for the public (Public Information Officers, Joint Communication Systems) as well as the responders.  And it sets up regional command centers that work through unified commands in various localities and across the nation.  So no matter how large or small the next disaster is, we can be there communicating, working and responding as one.

If you are ready to help, maybe I’ll see you there.  Till then, Stay Safe.

Ed Feinberg DVM, is a member of Veterinary Medical Assistance Team 2 (VMAT2) and Team Leader, Westchester Animal Response Team, Westchester County, NY


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