A Cautionary Tale
Veterinary Facilities Must Prepare for the Unexpected

September 7, 2011

September is National Preparedness Month and, as if on cue, Mother Nature has underscored the importance of emergency preparation and planning by sending a slew of natural disasters—including wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes—our way. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina clearly demonstrated the importance of companion animals to individuals and their families, and was the impetus behind the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act—federal legislation that requires local and state emergency preparedness authorities to include how they will accommodate household pets and service animals in in their evacuation plans.

Whether guarding against natural disasters such as fires, storms, hurricanes, high winds, floods and earthquakes, or manmade emergencies such as hazardous material spills or terrorist attacks, veterinarians should be actively involved in designing emergency management plans for the clinics, shelters and other animal care centers they operate and serve. These plans can help maintain operations during and in the aftermath of a disaster.

Getting Prepared

CWC staff prepping for storm
Staff at the Cape Wildlife Center in Mass. board windows in anticipation of the storm.

The cornerstone of good disaster planning is developing a detailed emergency plan for your facility. According to Disaster Planning for Animal Facilities, a helpful on-line handbook available from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), your plan should be predicated on a realistic evaluation of your vulnerabilities. It should address four areas:

  1. Mitigation - preventing or minimizing the impact of a disaster via careful analysis, and thorough design and building protocols
  2. Preparation - anticipating the unexpected and establishing priorities for taking appropriate action
  3. Response - carefully detailing action steps designed to proceed in a safe, organized manner
  4. Recovery - focusing on assessing damage and resuming operations as quickly as feasible

Dr. Roberto Aguilar, Medical Director of The HSUS/Fund for Animals’ Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable, Massachusetts and a veteran of several significant Louisiana storms, said advanced disaster planning helped the center successfully weather the storm and continue operations. "Once Irene hit land in central Massachusetts," Dr. Aguilar noted, "we were already prepared. We fully implemented our pre-designed disaster plan and although we lost power and Internet access due to high winds, our generator and animal care equipment were in good working order. We successfully relocated all our outside patients indoors to our new animal wards, and continued medical care and admissions of new patients orphaned or injured by the storm. I’m pleased to report we were able to continue our operations, offering the community life-saving wildlife care and rehabilitation, throughout Hurricane Irene."

Have a Back-up Plan

Dog standing amongst rubble
This dog was rescued from his North Carolina house after Hurricane Irene swept through.

It is essential that you: plan how and where to relocate patients and how to back up your medical records, identify procedures to insure maximum continuity of operations, support the security of your physical establishment and your personnel, conduct general emergency planning and fire prevention and establish legal and insurance protocols. These and other points are detailed in an AVMA brochure, Disaster Preparedness for Veterinary Practices. There are even professional firms that will work with you to provide business continuity planning services and to help you formulate your disaster plan.

Dr. Kathi Heiber, an HSVMA member and veterinary practitioner from New York, wrote to us about her own experience during the recent Hurricane Irene. "Without question," she emphasized, "the automatic back-up power generator—maintaining our computer server, a couple of terminals and a printer, our water access, the lights in our exam room and the oxygen in our surgery room, a refrigerator, and our phone system—was the most important equipment preserving my peace of mind. We’ve been saved by this valuable resource."

It is important that veterinarians realize that in the event of a disaster, your clients and the broader community will consider your facility a center of animal-related disaster support information and resources. Consequently, you should include a reasonable degree of client and community outreach in your disaster plan.

Client Resources

The HSUS has developed disaster preparedness brochures that you can offer to your clientele and to the broader public. There are three brochure versions: for companion animals, livestock, and horses.

Additional general animal rescue and preparedness information is also available on the HSUS website.

Keep in mind that the likelihood that your facility will survive and thrive after an unforeseen emergency tomorrow depends in large part on the planning and preparation you do today.