As flames cast an amber glow in the distance and thick smoke cloaks the landscape, horse trailers line the roadway waiting to drop off their precious cargo at the county fairgrounds. Veterinarians and vet techs working from a mobile disaster relief trailer help direct the equids—and the occasional llama, pig, goat, sheep, or cow—to the stalls and paddocks that will give the animals temporary refuge from the fast-moving fire. While chaos is in the air, the volunteers offer a sense of calm and order. Unfortunately, they’ve done this before.
One of those volunteers is Claudia Sonder, DVM, of Napa Valley Equine, in California, who shared strategies for developing and deploying an equine veterinary disaster-response mobile unit at the 2021 American Association of Equine Practitioners’ Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Nashville, Tennessee. Sonder is the Northern California Association of Equine Practitioners (NCAEP) emergency response committee chair and president of the Napa Community Animal Response Team.
During her presentation, Sonder encouraged veterinarians in the audience to take a proactive role in disaster planning, even if they hadn’t managed sheltered horses in the past. “If you’d asked me six years ago if I needed a disaster plan in Napa, I would’ve said ‘no,’” she told the audience. “And now, every year since 2015 we’ve had very large fires, so we live in a changing world.”
The NCAEP Trailer
During the Wine Country Wildfires in 2017, the NCAEP used a loaned cargo trailer to deploy veterinary treatment for affected and evacuated horses. Having a central, mobile hub from which volunteer veterinarians and vet techs could offer services proved a success, leading the organization to procure and stock a permanent treatment trailer for future disasters. The donor-funded trailer is an 18-foot bumper-pull and cost less than $20,000 to purchase, upgrade, stock, and brand, Sonder said.
“This was a donor win,” said Sonder, who encouraged veterinarians to find local partners and sponsors to support equine-disaster response trailers in their areas. “Any of you is likely to find someone (a potential donor) in your community who cares about horses enough and is watching the news enough to know that being prepared (for natural disasters) ahead of time is a win-win.”
The NCAEP trailer—which is basically a fully equipped equine critical care clinic on wheels—is wrapped in the organization’s and sponsors’ logos, easily recognizable for the horse-owning community, and useful for outreach and recruiting events, Sonder said.
Legislation, Organization, Personnel, and Liability
Deploying a regional response trailer isn’t as easy as hitching up and hitting the road when disaster strikes. First, Sonder recommends creating a 501(c)(3) corporation or finding an established nonprofit to own, oversee, and operate the trailer. Standard operating guidelines for volunteer roles and responsibilities, as well as a system to notify and coordinate volunteers when they’re needed, are also necessary, she said. And those volunteers must sign liability releases.
The group that owns the equine disaster-response trailer must also work with local authorities to ensure efforts are approved and coordinated. Each state has different plans, structures, and requirements in place for disaster response, and volunteers and organizations must work within the frameworks created by local emergency responders, although federal law does offer some guidance, Sonder said.
In 2006, after reports surfaced that pet owners were less likely to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina than those without companion animals, congress enacted the PETS Act. This legislation authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, as well as to household pets and animals themselves, following a major disaster or emergency.
“The PETS Act requires counties and local jurisdictions have veterinary disaster response plans in place,” Sonder said. “However, this is unfunded and focuses on companion animals, not livestock.”
Additionally, local animal control offices responsible for this planning are often understaffed and/or don’t have personnel with horse experience, Sonder said. This is where equine groups can help. For example, the NCAEP has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with its local jurisdictions to deploy its mobile unit and run shelters. This coordination is best done before an emergency, Sonder said.
Most states also have a veterinary medical reserve corps (VMRC) through which practitioners and techs can volunteer, she said, adding that people should seek the designation of disaster service worker through local jurisdictions to receive workers’ compensation coverage should they be injured while deploying. Sonder recommends completing FEMA’s Incident Command System (ICS) Training, which is available online.
Finally, said Sonder, the equine disaster response organization is responsible for keeping its trailer stocked with fresh medical supplies and medications. Volunteers inventory the NCAEP trailer twice a year to make sure it’s ready when needed. “Some clinic owners are willing to swap out newer medications for those that are about to expire, or we donate expiring supplies to volunteer veterinarians for use at nonprofits,” Sonder said.
Standardized Patient Care
The NCAEP Disaster Relief Trailer is more than a veterinary supply storage unit. It also comes with standardized procedures, training materials, and documents, so sheltered horses receive consistent care and volunteers can tag in when needed and know what’s expected of them.
Data from NCAEP research done in collaboration with University of California, Davis, show 20% of sheltered horses will need some form of veterinary care. With that in mind, the equine disaster response team strives to have one vet and tech pair per 50 horses. More vets and vet techs are needed during heavy intake and triage periods.
Again, following procedure is crucial, Sonder said.
“(During intake) often we’ll give those animals that are coming in about 60 minutes in their pens to ‘simmer down,’” she said. “The effect of adrenaline on the intake exam can be very misleading and dangerous, so we are very careful—safety is a high priority.”
The animals are assigned an intake number, given a medical record, and added to a treatment board if ongoing veterinary care is necessary. Individual treatment “baskets” are created and clearly labeled for each horse receiving medications. The vet-and-tech pairs work in zones to ensure biosecurity and continuity of care. Every detail is recorded.
Even during an evacuation situation, veterinarians need owner consent for treatment, and the volunteers must track that consent in the horse’s medical record. “These people are having their worst day—in many cases they are or will be evacuated for weeks in these large-scale evacuations, so they’re often not present to take care of their animals.”
If the owner isn’t available, then a jurisdiction with authority (such as the local animal enforcement office) must consent to care.
Managing horses during a natural disaster requires a coordinated community effort. Outfitting and deploying an equine disaster-response mobile veterinary unit and having a volunteer structure in place for veterinarians and techs willing to help can saves lives. The NCAEP has free resources available for those interested in starting their own regional integrated equine disaster-response programs.