Boston… From floods, to hurricanes, to fires, to blizzards, nature’s fury uncovers people who are unprepared for disaster. . . who leave their animals alone and abandoned. Conversely, some people choose to wait out the danger with their pets at their side. Either scenario can interfere with rescue operations and overwhelm the local veterinary community. Enter the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT), a SWAT-like approach to large-scale, animal-related emergencies.
“The VMAT are highly trained veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and support personnel,” said Cindy Lovern, DVM, MS, Assistant Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “They provide nationwide coverage during times of disaster and can be deployed within 24 to 48 hours.”
Two Disaster Response Vehicles used by VMAT were exhibited at the 138th AVMA Annual Convention in Boston, July 14-18, at the Hynes Convention Center, one designed for rescuing large animals, such as horses and farm animals, the second for companion and other small animals.
The first VMAT, based in Massachusetts, was formed in 1994. Others in California, Maryland, and North Carolina are now also active. VMAT-1 MA assisted in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, which tore through US Virgin Island St. Thomas in 1995. During their most recent deployment, the VMAT was sent to Houston after the city was flooded by Tropical Storm Allison.
At the disaster site, the teams triage and stabilize patients and provide basic veterinary medical care. Members carry a three-day supply of food, water, personal living necessities, and medical supplies and equipment. By being thoroughly prepared, the VMAT can establish a veterinary field hospital and provide any other veterinary services needed to support a complete disaster relief effort.
During a disaster, the teams not only care for injured or abandoned animals, but also perform zoonotic disease and bioterrorism surveillance and help ensure food and water safety. Dogs involved with the Secret Service and search and rescue efforts are potential patients of VMAT.
“Our goal in disaster preparedness is cooperation among many responding groups, including VMAT, state and local officials, state veterinarians, the local community, humane groups, and the American Red Cross,” Dr. Lovern said. “We need all entities involved in disaster response to work together efficiently for human and animal well being.”
The AVMA developed a Disaster Preparedness and Response Guide, 340 pages of disaster resource information designed for veterinarians, veterinary technicians, emergency managers, and others interested in veterinary and animal issues during disasters. Fourteen comprehensive sections explore everything from VMAT operations to foreign animal diseases. The Association also has a 12-page booklet, “Saving the Whole Family,” that outlines detailed plans for saving both large and small animals in a disaster.
“If everyone is adequately educated and prepared to take care of the animals they own and evacuate them quickly,” Dr. Lovern added, “human lives will also be saved.”
More information is available at www.avma.org. The AVMA meeting also featured educational presentations on disaster medicine and planning and a day-long symposium on the role of the veterinarian in disaster response.
The AVMA is a professional organization of 66,000 veterinarians. More than 750 seminars were presented during the 138th annual convention, which is one of the largest gatherings of veterinarians in North America. The next annual convention will be in Nashville, July 13-17, 2002.