Animal Considerations for the Emergency Management Community
An emergency manager's job is to protect human life and property. This is a difficult and sometimes thankless job, often exacerbated by factors outside of our control. As society, technology and the emergency management community evolve, it becomes apparent that giving considerable thought to "whole community" preparedness will lead to a better outcome at the end of the day. Understanding the undeniable bonds between humans and their animal companions can help the emergency management community mitigate issues that have been shown to lead to complications where human safety is concerned.
As far back as Hurricane Katrina and as recently as this year's panhandle wildfires, there have been instances of endangered or lost human lives due to the refusal to abandon companion or livestock animals that are considered "part of the family." Alternatively, animals left behind due to owners' or first responders' inability to transport them to safety has caused complications ranging from carcass disposal, veterinary concerns, and road hazards. They can also create mental health issues for survivors and first responders, as well public perception problems. As emergency managers, a commitment to focus on the prevention and mitigation of these routine animal issues during disasters can go a long way towards the overall preparedness of our communities.
Taking the old emergency management credo one step further, disasters start with an individual and end with an individual. The more prepared citizens are to take care of themselves and their animals, the more effective we as emergency managers can be in response and recovery.
We emphasize educating our citizens prior to hurricane season to encourage the practice of self-reliance and having an executable plan during a disaster. This type of education has come a long way, but we still need to continue the efforts as populations change and the percentage of the population that has never experienced a disaster increases. People become complacent, ultimately proving difficult to inspire or maintain a preparedness mindset under normal conditions. Similar to our traditional vulnerable populations such as seniors, persons with medical needs or persons with access and functional needs, animals are reliant upon specialized support, resources and other considerations in an emergency. Encouraging owners to take simple steps in preparing needed resources and planning for their animals in emergencies can ease the burden on local jurisdictions.
Another area in which we should strive for improvement is leading by example and designating ahead of time those individuals responsible for caring for animals during a disaster. A disaster is not the time to figure out who has needed resources or skills. Putting an animal-specific structure in place ahead of time is the best way of guaranteeing that animals will be cared for during and after a disaster. Forming some type of animal issues committee or community animal response team, that can be activated during a disaster, is the best way to achieve this goal. There are numerous individuals that can be called upon to assist with any animal issues that may arise. These individuals may be your local veterinarians, animal shelter managers, livestock deputies, or your AgriLife or Texas Animal Health Commission representatives. Gathering these folks into one group and ensuring they are actively engaged with each other is by far the best way to feel confident that animals will be the least of your worries in an event.
While there are many other actions which can be taken to prepare for animal issues in disasters, the education of your citizens and creation of an animal issues committee have been proven to be two of the most effective measures. If we take the time to sort out the details of managing animal needs in a response ahead of time, there will be far fewer reactionary decisions and responses that risk the lives of humans and animals alike.
There is no doubt that animals have become a very important part of our lives and will always be viewed as members of our families. Because of this, it is essential that we give considerable thought to animals during the planning and response phases of emergency management.
Here are a couple of links to videos that may be helpful for your citizens when they start their animal planning activities.
Holli Tietjen-Hale, MS
Assistant Director Emergency Management
Texas Animal Health Commission
Texas Animal Health Commission