Recommendations and Lessons Learned: the First Ten Years of First Responses to Fires and Floods
Melissa J. Nixon, DVM
Work with species you know; ask questions of those with more experience. Do not feed any animal if you are not familiar with that species' nutritional needs and limitations; hungry is better than dead.
Since raisin toxicity has been seen in three species as of this writing, do not give raisins to any animals in our care. Avocados are toxic to nearly every species except our own, so put them on your own salads but do not give them to animals. Onions and garlic are very toxic to cats and moderately toxic to other species. Most commercial baby food for little humans contains garlic, so do not give it to kitties! Cedar chips are highly irritating and should never be used as bedding. The artificial sweetner xylitol can cause liver damage and fatal hypoglycemia in dogs and possibly some other species.
Never leave an animal in a dangerous situation unattended: this includes cats, rabbits, and other animals in carriers that have not yet been admitted to the climate-controlled area. Do Not Leave an Occupied Carrier Sitting In the Sun, nor where the sun may hit it in an hour when you have gotten distracted and failed to return for it. This also includes animals in trailers with open feed, escape, or main doors. Animals that cannot be tied safely should not be tied at all, even for a moment; this includes horses that pull, dogs that chew leashes, and animals that are not yet within our secured area with a sturdy perimeter fence. Never tie to something less solid than the animal you are tying - remember the horse tied to the tack box at our fair!
If possible, house animals from the same family together or within sight of each other; watch until you are sure, however, that they won't fight - not all siblings get along.
Avoid chasing escaped animals! We are far better to try to contain them to the area they are in and then gradually tighten our circle around them rather than to try to run after them. Not only are they usually faster than us, but they panic and are more likely to be injured.
Remember that blood on an animal may have come from an injured human who held the animal rather than the animal itself; take precautions to avoid AIDS and Hepatitis risks.
Rabies is a very serious risk. We are in an area with lots of rabid skunks. Other wildlife and feral domestics are at high risk of getting and transmitting the virus. Some disasters, such as floods, may actually increase the spread of rabies among unvaccinated animals. Any mammal can transmit rabies. Saliva from a rabid animal that gets into an open wound, whether from the bite or perhaps the blister that ruptured this morning, can transmit the virus. Once signs of rabies appear, the virus is considered incurable and fatal. Never decide to "wait and see" whether you get signs of rabies after an animal bite. Waiting can be a fatal mistake. If the biting animal is not available to be quarantined or to be killed and have its brain examined, you will need to go through the rabies vaccination series and get a dose of immune globulin as well. It is given in the arm and the butt, requires several doses, and is expensive. So try hard not to get bitten! If you do get bitten, report it immediately!
If you are admitting an animal, write every single bit of ID information on the record sheet. Rabies tag number/year/vet/color/shape, name/address tag, tattoo, brand, obvious scars and markings, etc. Every animal should be scanned for a microchip at admission and at the time of discharge to owner to help confirm ownership. Scan it whether the claiming owner says it is chipped or not; otherwise, you defeat the whole idea of chipping as theft prevention.
Owner ID: if an owner is present at the time of admission, you should note some form of ID. However, they may not have a wallet or drivers license with them. Be creative! Do they have a distinctive piece of jewelry, tattoo, or keychain? Whatever could be used at the time of discharge to confirm that this is the owner who admitted the animal.
For visiting privileges, we can use the coded poker chip tokens we tried last time; once an owner is matched to an animal they are given a poker chip with an ID code that matches the code on the animal's paperwork. This chip will get them in to visit their animal throughout the disaster duration. At the time of discharge, however, always recheck owner and animal identities per the usual protocol. A chip is good for visiting, but not secure enough for discharge.
If ownership is disputed, the animal shall remain in our custody until the dispute is settled.
No one should be within our secured area unless: they are wearing their Animal Response Group ID tag, they have a valid Visiting Owner token, or they are accompanied by a properly identified ARG volunteer. This includes folks from other response agencies.
Those with Visiting Owner tokens have the privilege of visiting their own animal(s); they do not have the right to pet other animals, wander the premises, disturb the smooth functioning of the unit, nor keep volunteers from performing their duties. The token will be revoked if an individual creates problems.
Leaders on duty should be wearing an identification tag to denote their command tree position. Individual ARG nametags should be worn at all times and in addition to any leader ID tag. Remember veterinarians have blue ARG name tags, registered veterinary technicians have green ARG name tags, other volunteers who have completed at least 60 hours of training have yellow ARG name tags, and volunteers who have less than 60 hours training yet are certified have white ARG name tags. Hotshot team members and those filling leadership positions will have red tags denoting their positions; these will be worn just below their ARG nametag.
Those who volunteer for the first time during a disaster cannot help in any capacity until they have completed the minimum four hour training course that covers Incident Command System, Safety, Goals, and a single job description. Once they have been certified, they can often best serve by greeting animal owners as they arrive at the Red Cross shelter(s) and helping them admit their animal to our unit.
Remember the release form is green. No animal is allowed to leave the premises until properly cleared by security; papers must be fully filled out and properly signed.
Nobody is immune to vehicle inspection when taking a vehicle out of the facility. In certain circumstances, vehicles may also be inspected before being allowed to enter the facility.
Animals being transferred from one site to another, such as from the fairgrounds to the animal control kennel or a ranch, must be photographed and entered into the transfer logbook before departure. In general, we will transport the animal back to the original site for owner pick-up at the time of release.
Cage birds, rodents, fish, reptiles, and amphibians will be transferred to a designated site, usually a veterinary hospital specializing in the care of such animals, as soon as possible. In the meantime, be sure they are out of the weather/cold/heat and safe from harassment. Remember to enter them in the transfer log. Do not feed them unless you can positively identify the animal's species and dietary requirements; water is ok. Be sure they have adequate air supply but are unable to escape. Never leave animals awaiting transfer in cardboard carriers.
Please use chain leashes on dogs. A dog can chew through those nice little nylon leashes in seconds. Tether only with plastic covered cable, not rope, not chain, not a leash. Be sure the animal cannot fall over the edge of a porch or a slope and strangle.
Never ever tether by a choke collar! Use proper protection on any trees that must be used to tie animals.
Dogs that dig will probably be tethered.
Please, if you find that a dog or any animal bites, or is aggressive to cats, or is scared of men, or tries to bolt from kennel, or has any other significant behavioral issue, be sure both the record and the stall/cage card are clearly marked and the notation highlighted.
Do not be the hero that tries to break up a dogfight with their hands: yank the leash, throw water, hit them with a pillow - and scream for HELP.
All dogs are to be fed a basic maintenance kibble unless otherwise prescribed by a veterinarian. Bloated belly is a medical emergency in a dog.
Do not leave a cat in a carrier out in the sun!
Cats bite, scratch, and wiggle quite athletically; if you must grab, the neck scruff is best. If you scruff the neck and stretch the back legs out by holding the hocks, you have the best chance of winning a struggle.
Cats are our most common burn victims because they are usually impossible to catch and evacuate once the incident has started. Do not waste valuable time trying to catch a frightened cat when other more cooperative animals are waiting for your help.
If you are trying to insert an unwilling cat into a carrier, place the carrier on its end with the door side up, lift the cat by the scruff of its neck, and gently lower it into the carrier.
Remember that a cat that cannot urinate is a medical emergency; if you see one straining, even if you think it is just constipated - or if there is no urine in the pan - please notify the treatment veterinarian or triage veterinary technician. Each cat must have its own litter pan. If that is impossible, the pan must be disinfected with 1:20 bleach, dried, and filled with fresh litter for each cat.
Horses kick, bite, will surely trounce your foot, and may try to jerk the lead rope out of your hand and bolt. If there is any suspicion that a horse will be difficult to handle, either use a stud chain properly per your training or go get someone more experienced with horses.
Perhaps more than any other species, horses will riot if they are not all fed at the same time.
Some horses will not enter a trailer or confined area that has held a llama, pig, or other animal with strong scent. The owner of a horse trailer has the right to refuse to transport any other species.
A horse with abdominal pain is a medical emergency. If they lay down too much, roll too much, look sweaty, or will not eat, tell the treatment veterinarian or triage veterinary technician.
Overheated horses can be helped by running hose water along their neck in the jugular vein area, as well as inside the front legs and in the groin. Never spray heavily muscled areas such as the butt until the horse is completely cooled, and then only spray a horse that needs to be washed and can be adequately dried without chilling.
Most cattle are left behind in defensible space. Some show, 4-H, and FFA animals may be evacuated; they usually do well in the tie stalls located in the cow barns.
Bloated belly should be reported to the medical team promptly.
Do not try to milk a cow or goat. If you think an animal needs milking, tell the medical team.
Goats are cute, much smarter than sheep, and accomplished escape artists. They prefer browse to graze, meaning they will climb a fence to strip a rose bush or young tree rather than eat the green grass that surrounds them.
Goats may try to butt you, and those with horns definitely know how to use them to advantage. Goats will kick if you handle their back legs.
Goats with horns can become dangerously tangled in fence or brush.
Goats are to be tethered only if there are absolutely no other housing options for them, and only if they can be protected completely from predators.
Llamas, donkeys, or certain specially bred and raised dogs may be embedded with goats or sheep as alert and protection animals. If such is the case, they should be kept with their flock or herd during evacuation as well. These guard animals are generally specifically not gentled to humans.
Sheep are cute, quite unintelligent, and actually rather fragile. Those with wool who get wet during fly season can become dangerously infested with maggots very rapidly. Wet, injured, or foul-smelling sheep should be reported to the medical team promptly.
It is acceptable to grab handfuls of wool as handles when moving recalcitrant sheep.
When using spray paint or livestock crayon to identify a sheep, remember that the wool you are damaging is what pays that sheep's room and board. We want to identify them, but make the mark smaller rather than covering the whole animal.
Pigs are extremely heat sensitive. Hosing them off, however, can be so much of a shock that it kills them. Best to get them in the shade, get a fan going on them, and lay wet cloths on them.
The best way to move pigs is to crowd them with a pig board and use food bribes. Never catch a pig by the leg; you can cause permanent damage.
Never try to pick up a pig unless you have earplugs in and are prepared for some serious noise.
Remember that pigs root, so do not house them in a dirt-floored stall with no doorsill.
Never try to tether a pig. Some pet pigs can be walked in a harness, but never in a collar.
Llama trailers often have different flooring than horse trailers and llama trailer owners may refuse to transport horses.
Llama wool is even more valuable than sheep wool, so use appropriate discretion in marking them with paint, livestock crayon, etc., for identification.
Mules and donkeys can be stabled in the horse area. They are smarter and therefore perceived as more stubborn than horses; ponies are generally in between.
A mule's kick seems to pack an extra wallop, so do be careful please.
We do not transport, house, or care for ratites - emus, rheas, and ostriches. They are big, fragile, very dangerous even to experienced humans, and difficult to handle. Escapees can rarely be re-caught. Worried owners should be referred to their own veterinarian for further recommendations.
Rabbits are very heat susceptible. They get rid of extra heat through their ears.
Rabbits can bite but would more likely rake you with their extremely sharp nails.
The musculature of a rabbit's back is so strong that a struggling rabbit will easily break its back; they do not do well as paraplegics. Let those who know and understand rabbits handle the bunnies. If you simply must get one into a cage or carrier, hold them so that their back will keep its normal curvature by holding the back feet underneath them with one hand and the scruff of the neck with your other hand. Put them into the cage or carrier backwards.
The few large exotic animals such as wolves, camels, cougars, and elephants in our area should already be covered by the state-mandated plans required of their owners. Worried owners should be referred to the exotic animal department at the veterinary school for further recommendations. We do not transport, shelter, or care for these species.
Please be extra careful around intact male animals of any species.
Premature birth is fairly common in animals close to their due date at the time of evacuation. Notify the medical team if you suspect an impending birth or find a newborn.
Do not try to rescue wildlife. The California Department of Fish and Game is firm on this point for several good reasons; I will vouch for them so please leave Bambi and company alone. If for some reason a wild animal comes into our care, it will immediately be placed with the licensed wildlife rescuer attached to our group and moved to another premise.
Remember that all animals will defend themselves when they are frightened or in pain, especially if we have removed the option of escaping. Better to plan ahead - get someone to help you, use a muzzle, a kitty bag, or a twitch - than to get injured yourself.
Often, evacuated animals should be receiving an ongoing prescription, but the owner did not bring the pet's medication out with them when they evacuated. If you encounter this problem, please bring it to the attention of the treatment veterinarian while the owner is still available so that we can talk directly to the owner before supplying an emergency refill.
Any feed other than basic adult-maintenance diets appropriate to that species will be treated as prescription, kept in the pharmacy storage area, and dispensed only upon order of a veterinarian. This includes alfalfa or alfalfa-mix hay, grains, sweet feed, bran, equine senior, puppy chow, lactation diets, kitten chow, all canned foods, supplements, and treats. Remember it is better to be hungry than dead. Also remember that there is always at least one ignorant person on the premises who will, given the chance, give inappropriate and potentially life-threatening feed to an animal. Don't tempt them; keep feed stored safely.
When housing and pen space is limited, tie lines may be utilized for horses, llamas, cattle, and dogs. Do not put more than one species on the same tie line! Please check to be sure your tie line is set up to be safe for the anchoring trees, the animals, nearby structures, and passersby.
Cattle may be housed in tie stalls. In rare instances, horses may also be housed in tie stalls. It is very important that these animals are tied with an appropriate quick release (by the human, not by the animal) knot. It is also important to give them enough rope to eat, drink, and lay down, but not enough rope to get tangled, turn around, get a leg over the rope, or back partway out of the stall.
Service animals include guide dogs, hearing dogs, wheelchair assistance dogs, seizure alert dogs, movement assistance dogs, psychiatric assistance dogs, and possibly other species such as monkeys or miniature horses. Therapy animals are not service animals and do not have the same special privileges under the ADA. Service animals are legally allowed to accompany their human partners everywhere, including stores, restaurants, evacuation centers, and medical clinics. If you are present at any situation denying access to a service animal, please be willing to advocate on behalf of the service dog partner. If the situation does not resolve immediately, contact the command center to have our service animal advocate notified. If a service animal does end up in our care, they should never be kenneled, tethered, or otherwise confined without the explicit ok of the owner. In general, they should be kept on a leash in our command center. If a service animal needs to go into foster care, it will probably need to be the only animal and be allowed to live inside the home. A service animal is a serious worker; never try to call, feed, pet, or otherwise distract an on-duty service animal. If they appear to be at ease, still do not approach without the partner's explicit permission; never offer them treats as that can seriously damage their concentration and their relationship with their partner. They may be trained to eat only out of their own bowl, with harness removed, and only when their partner has presented food and water.
While we are on the subject, a bit of etiquette: a challenged person's wheelchair, crutches, walker, cane, oxygen tank, etc., are considered extensions of their personal space. Laying your hand on the wheelchair and leaning over to talk to the occupant is rude. Talk directly to someone, not to the person accompanying them; even if I cannot walk, I can still think and converse. Some folks may use computer keyboards, voice amplifiers, and other devices to communicate. Often we have a volunteer on premises who knows sign language; if you have this skill, please let the command center personnel know. Before you dive to open a door for someone with a disability, take a second to be sure they are not using the door to partially support their weight. I have never met anyone in a wheelchair who enjoyed having their chair twirled in wheelies nor pushed in races. Do not move a chair out of your way; go around it, whether it is occupied or not. Only gimps get to crack gimp jokes. Nobody is perfect physically, mentally, or socially, but there is something that each and every person can do to help our disaster response effort. At times, we may be working in an area with accessibility problems; if you are physically able and receive a request to help a disabled person get up steps or access a toilet facility, please do your best to comply or to find someone who can if you cannot.
Please remember that our government considers it not only tacky but also downright illegal to collect tax-deductible donations at our disaster-response site. However, we can supply a pile of stamped, addressed envelopes for interested donors to utilize. Anyone wishing to support our local 501c ARG may make the checks out to us; they may also wish to consider donations to the state veterinary medical association's Foundation, or to the AVMA Foundation, to support response efforts at the state or national levels.
Pink trail tape will be somehow attached to each animal in our care and show the assigned identification number and any information known regarding the animal's name and owner's name. In most cases the tape is tied around the neck with a square knot, loose enough to slide a finger or two underneath. We use trail tape in part because it will break if it gets caught, rather than strangle the animal. It is also cheap, and available in all of our kit boxes. Use an indelible felt pen such as a sharpie to write on the tape.
In addition, orange trail tape shall be attached to any animal needing veterinary treatment, examination, or observation. The outside of the stall and the stall record shall also be flagged with orange tape if the animal is flagged.
Cages on loan will be numbered in sequence following the ARG cages within their size range. Make a flap of duct tape with a streamer of blue trail tape stuck through the fold end. Use a sharpie pen to write the cage number and size on one side; put owner name and phone number on opposite side. Attach to cage where no animals can reach it including the occupant.
If the animal is housed in its own cage - i.e., the animal and cage belong to the same owner - flag the cage with green trail tape instead of the blue used for a loaner cage. If the animal arrives in a transport cage that is too small for housing, please return the transport cage to the owner if possible. If that is a hardship for the owner during the evacuation, mark the transport cage with a green flagged label and put it in a designated storage area for owner cages.
Each housing unit - cage, stall, tie line slot, or pen - will be numbered. Cage numbers will be preceded by C, stall numbers by S, tie line slots by T, and pen numbers by P. A tag with the unit number will be placed on the housing unit. When an animal is housed in that unit, the animal's name, ID#, and the date will be logged onto the card. When the animal is released, the date and time will be recorded on the card. When the unit is cleaned and ready for occupancy, note "clean" and the date/time on the card, then enter the unit number on the wipe board in the command center for available units. Initial all entries with first and last initial plus volunteer ID#. These cards should be filed at the end of the incident; in the unfortunately case of a disease outbreak, we may need to confirm which animals were sequentially housed in the same unit.
Cautions such as BITES, KICKS, COLICS, etc., shall be highlighted on all appropriate paperwork.
Always sign in and out. We assign work shifts and job slots to ensure that enough people are present during peak activity hours - feeding time, stall cleaning time, etc., to ensure that each leadership position is appropriately filled, and to ensure that each worker gets enough rest, food, and sanity time so that their work on subsequent shifts will not suffer. Please do not stay overtime so much that you cannot perform the duties we count on you to do.
Start up kits will be provided to those holding leadership positions so that a response can be initiated immediately without needing to go to the storage depot first. Please keep any start up kit for which you are responsible stocked and ready to go, and do not forget to bring it with you to every meeting and every response, practice or real. Be sure that things like forms and trail tape are replenished after each use of the kit.
If you are the assigned person on the trailer crew roster, or if you hold any position titled Commander, Chief, Director, or Officer: and you cannot fulfill your obligation, it is your responsibility to notify your immediate supervisor and arrange for a replacement or substitute. Be sure that you transport the truck supply box or start up kit to the new person, and be sure you notify the dispatcher of the updated roster.
Animals unclaimed at the end of our response effort shall be foster-homed for as long as possible to allow the owners a chance to come forward. While we recommend a 6-month foster period, state law may require a longer period. Animals relinquished by the owner at the time of the disaster may be fostered for 6 months to give the owner a chance to get their life together and confirm their decision. You may sign up to adopt a particular animal if it is still unclaimed at the end of the foster period; you may be allowed to foster an animal you wish to subsequently adopt only upon the clear understanding of the difference between "foster" and "adopt."
Owned animals whose homes are damaged or destroyed by the disaster will be fostered until owners are ready to take them home. Owners must be allowed reasonable access to their pets.
All foster homes must be authorized by one of the veterinarians. Final decisions regarding where a particular animal will be fostered always rest with the ARG veterinary team.
Please utilize the ubiquitous steno notebooks to write down everything. Do not throw any notes away; avoid tearing pages out of the notebooks.
Those who answer telephones, interact with leaders of other agencies, or deal with the news media should be especially careful to log each contact.
If you are responsible for keys to any vehicle or locked area, make certain you turn the keys over to the person following you in that position.
Nobody is exempt from debriefings. The more you want to avoid talking about it, the more likely you should be talking about it.
Insubordination is cause for dismissal from the ARG and surrender of your ID badge.
Failure to participate in at least one meeting every 6 months and one training per year is cause for suspension from the ARG until you attend the required meetings and trainings.