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Service animal decontamination training for HazMat and first responders

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The goals of decontamination are at odds with service and companion animals. Proper training is available now.

Emergency management agencies and first responders have a blind spot in HazMat decontamination procedures: service animal decontamination. People who are blind or rely on service animals, most often dogs, are unlikely to be separated from their companion. This poses significant challenges for EMS, fire departments, law enforcement, and hospitals.

Decontamination that stems from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or a gas or chemical leak, or even terrorism has four goals:

  1. Remove the harmful materials
  2. Confine the contamination to a specific area
  3. Limit exposure to the chemical
  4. Prevent secondary contamination
Elkhart Fire rescuing pets during a flood
Elkhart Fire rescuing pets during a flood. Photo courtesy Nature’s Way Animal Emergency Response.

It’s this fourth goal that is often at odds with decontamination protocol.

A person who is blind and in need of decontamination may be put through a standard shower and decon procedure.

But the dog is likely separated. In most cases, first responders controlling the HazMat scene are unlikely to know how to handle the dog. In this one example new problems have been introduced.

Problems arrise on-scene when animals are left behind

  • The person is likely further incapacitated by not having their seeing-eye dog.
  • The person will experience increased stress and emotions that can lead to anger or frustration.
  • The dog may also be stressed, feeling it has a job to do that it can’t. The result is a danger to HazMat responders.
  • The dog may have to be taken to a separate facility miles away from the person in hopes of limiting secondary contamination. But this can result in more stress for both the dog and person, plus a risk of contamination to transport vehicles, other facilities, and other responders.

The ideal scenario is treating animals like people

Vantage Point has partnered with Nature’s Way Animal Rescue to provide Service Animal Decontamination training to help fill this gap.

Nature’s Way, with Vantage Point, has experience to help your team and agency:

  • Know how to decontaminate animals and people at the scene.
  • Know how to keep humans and animals calm and, if necessary, closeby to their companion.
  • How to Mitigate the risk of secondary contamination to animals and humans.

It’s more than dogs. Horses, cats, pocket pets, and reptiles may need animal decontamination

The most common assumption in a HazMat scene is to keep service animals with people safe. But the most common situation is broader:

  • Farm animals – horses 
  • Working dogs and horses (police departments or USAR)
  • Service animals – dogs, horses and some exotic species
  • Household pets – dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, etc.

First responders and HazMat teams are far more likely to encounter a chemical spill on a farm or unknown gases or particulates in a home with pets than service animals. 

Because of the PETs Act of 2008, all counties are required to have a plan to deal with animal issues during an emergency event

The PETs Act does not include horses but most owners will consider their horse a companion animal and refuse help unless their horse is included.  Horses are also certainly included in the service and working-animal realm.  

Nature’s Way brings experienced veterinarians, who can assist with all animal types. 

This training prepares crews and your team for

  • How to handle large animals like horses, often using specialized equipment.
  • What staff and resources like PPE are needed on-scene and after cleanup.
  • How to handle weather conditions to protect against hyperthermia, hypothermia, or severe weather.
  • How to set up a kennel/stable area or other specialized quarters for animals in the Cold Zone. This also includes measures to ensure safety in water runoff and other environmental impacts.
  • Assess the animals and humans on the scene for triage and decontamination systems.
  • How to record information and identify owners and pets on the scene to ensure pets and owners are reunited appropriately at the end of the decontamination process.
  • What special considerations need to be identified and how they differ from humans in treating eyes, hooves, paws, tails, skin folds and creases, and more.
  • How to safely examine and handle animals when the owner is unavailable.

Grants are available to cover the costs of training

VPC and Nature’s Way course collaboration is one of the few in the United States to offer animal decontamination training. Funding sources are often available to cover the cost for local and regional agencies. 

Possible funding sources include

All trainings are taught with live animals to ensure students get as realistic hands-on training on animal behavior and how to handle different situations as possible.

HazMat training with a live horse
HazMat Training with a live horse. Photo courtesy Nature’s Way Animal Emergency Response.

These trainings offered by VPC can combine local and regional agencies in large-scale and challenging exercises. We can create an exercise that takes a typical highway HazMat situation and combines it with runoff contamination on farmland, for instance. 

Agencies that sometimes aren’t part of these exercises may find value, too, like universities such as Purdue Extension offices in Indiana, police department K9 units or mounted police units,  or local humane societies (allowing for networking to make working together during an actual incident seamless).  A list of healthcare coalitions can be found at the ISDH website.

To get started, talk about funding, and start planning a course or exercise, contact VPC

We've worked with these and dozens of other partners across the U.S.