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Ready for Disaster: AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams

The AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, after retooling, are ready again to deploy to the scene of a natural disaster or another emergency—and members are eager to return to service.

The VMAT program officially relaunched May 1 after the Tri-State Veterinary Disaster Response Conference, April 28-29 in La Crosse, Wis.

"I am thrilled to see the teams ready to deploy again, able to assist in the veterinary medical care of animals affected by disaster and emergencies," said Dr. Heather Case, formerly a VMAT member and currently the AVMA coordinator for emergency preparedness and response.

The AVMA established the VMAT program in 1993 as a public-private partnership with the federal government. In the past several years, changes in federal law prompted officials to develop the National Veterinary Response Team as a program that operates entirely under government oversight. Now the AVMA has retooled the VMATs to respond to requests for assistance from state governments—and to offer training in disaster response.

Dr. Case reintroduced the VMAT program during the recent tri-state conference. Several VMAT members gave presentations to help train attendees in the basics of veterinary disaster response. Some speakers discussed federal government resources. Much of the conference focused on the importance of local disaster planning (see accompanying article).

VMAT program

Remarking on the conference, Dr. Case agreed that disaster planning for animals should start at the local and state levels. She said states are asking for assistance in filling gaps during disaster response, however.

"The VMAT program complements other national resources by bridging gaps between local, state, and national assets," Dr. Case said.

The VMAT program now encompasses two types of field teams, each with four to six members. An early assessment team deploys for 72 hours, while a basic care team deploys initially for five days. The VMAT program also draws on members' experience to offer training in veterinary disaster response.

"Due to the long history of the VMAT program, members have a depth and breadth of knowledge in this arena," Dr. Case said.

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation provides major financial support for the VMAT program along with other efforts to address the needs of animals during disasters, such as the tri-state conference.

Dr. Gerhardt G. Goemann, a VMAT commander and conference organizer, is excited about his team being able to deploy again. Disaster response has been some of the most rewarding work of his career, he said, even counting decades of clinical practice.

In 1997, when Dr. Goemann was practicing in Arboga, Calif., a major flood impacted his practice and community. He had no disaster plans or training. As the county shelter veterinarian, however, he fell into the role of organizing care for the animals.

"We need to teach all veterinarians to prepare themselves, prepare their hospitals for whatever events might be likely in the area—and then get involved in the community helping the people to plan," Dr. Goemann said.

After the Arboga flood, Dr. Goemann joined the VMAT program so he could contribute more to disaster response. Eventually, he semiretired to Minnesota and became a VMAT commander.

Dr. Goemann believes that veterinarians have a responsibility to participate in disaster response.

"We have very unique talents, and when we can direct those talents to assisting in a time of need, we have an obligation to do so," Dr. Goemann said.

VMAT speakers

Dr. Goemann also spoke during the recent tri-state conference, with a presentation addressing the question "Are you ready to be a veterinary responder?"

Before becoming responders, Dr. Goemann said, veterinarians need to make disaster plans for themselves and their practices. Veterinarians also can share information about disaster planning with their clients.

Veterinarians who want to volunteer for disaster response should not self-deploy, Dr. Goemann emphasized, but become part of the system that government agencies and nongovernmental partners have developed to coordinate efforts. Veterinarians should join a local or state response team, if possible, and train with other responders.

"Don't exchange business cards at the scene of the disaster," Dr. Goemann said.

Dr. Colin M. Gillin, VMAT member and Oregon state wildlife veterinarian, outlined how the VMATs have approached member safety and veterinary triage during disaster response.

Dr. Gillin said VMAT members start each day with a safety briefing, always sign in and out, and never go anywhere without a buddy. Safety gear includes gloves, hard hats, and other personal protective equipment. Members need to remember to drink, eat, and rest during 10- to 12-hour days.

During the response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Dr. Gillin said, the VMATs at the Lamar-Dixon Equine Exposition Center in Louisiana sorted animals at the disaster shelter using the Secondary Assessment of Victim Endpoint triage system. The SAVE system basically is to identify patients that can benefit from immediate treatment in austere conditions.

"We were using this on everything that came into Lamar-Dixon, pretty much," Dr. Gillin said.

The VMAT members saw many animals that had not received good care but would survive, though the animals arriving at the shelter looked worse as time passed.

Additional information about disaster preparedness and response is available at www.avma.org/disaster/. Information about the VMATs is available at www.avma.org/vmat/.

Dr. Cynthia M. Faux, VMAT member and coordinator of the Washington Reserve Veterinary Corps, discussed the role of veterinarians in disaster shelters.

Dr. Faux said veterinarians volunteering at temporary shelters need to work within the system, realizing that the protocols often come down from above the level of shelter managers. Veterinarians also must consider herd health, particularly in preventing the spread of contagious diseases.

"You have to deal with the benefit of the many, and sometimes the individual doesn't come out on top," Dr. Faux said.

Federal resources

Many VMAT members are also on the roster of the National Animal Health Emergency Response Corps—a program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services.

Dr. Ty J. Vannieuwenhoven of the USDA, who helped create NAHERC, spoke on disaster response at the conference. He said types of emergencies range from local incidents such as an overturned hog truck to regional disasters such as the Iowa floods of last year to national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

"There are roles for us as veterinary responders in probably most of these incidents, at least as long as animals are involved," Dr. Vannieuwenhoven said.

Now that many states have animal response teams, Dr. Vannieuwenhoven said, NAHERC might become more a way to pay responders than to organize the response. The USDA has not deployed NAHERC since 2003, when corps members helped respond to a California outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease. The advantage of NAHERC, however, is that members become temporary USDA employees.

Dr. Debra M. Sime of USDA-APHIS Animal Care spoke about her program's new responsibility—following the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act—to ensure coordination on issues involving pets during a federal-level disaster response. She said her program is working with nongovernmental partners such as the AVMA and the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs.

"We're the new kids on the block, so this is all crash-course learning as we go," Dr. Sime said.

Also at the federal level, the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 provides a mechanism for states to apply for reimbursement for expenditures relevant to household pets and service animals during a disaster. The PETS Act comes into play only with a federal disaster declaration.

– KATIE BURNS



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