First responders train to help the helpless in a radiological emergency
EFFINGHAM, S.C. — Among the most important things to prepare for are the ones you never want to happen.
Radioactive contamination is at the top of most lists. Fast and knowledgeable treatment is the mission of first responders like hazardous materials teams, fire fighters, rescue and medical personnel — including veterinarians.
“What we are doing is for the whole population — for the people and the pets,” said John Reynolds, manager of Arizona’s Maricopa County Animal Shelter and leader of a recent training on radiological decontamination of animals for South Carolina first responders.
“In any disaster, a lot of people are reluctant to leave their pets behind. You see that every time there is a hurricane evacuation,” Reynolds said. “We don’t want to leave people or pets in harm’s way in an emergency, so we need to prepare for the handling and treatment of the animal population as well as the human one.”
South Carolina emergency planners share a goal of building local capabilities to help ensure that people and their animals stay safe, healthy — and together whenever possible — during emergency situations. That goal brought together Pee Dee-area emergency personnel and members of the S.C. Veterinary Reserve Corps (SCVRC) during the holidays for training in decontaminating animals after radiological incidents. This full-day class was sponsored by the Florence County Emergency Management Division and presented animal “decon” techniques that Reynolds and others developed and which were used in Japan following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
“There are a great many more emergency situations in which animals are likely to require assistance than many people think about,” said Charlotte Krugler, emergency preparedness veterinarian for Clemson University Livestock Poultry Health (LPH), a state regulatory agency based in Columbia. “Emergency response often requires search and rescue dogs or other working animals that are critically important. Likewise, service animals for people with disabilities generally are required by law to be planned for as well.”
With four nuclear power-generating plants in the Palmetto State and and two closely located in Georgia and North Carolina, only five coastal South Carolina counties — Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester and Georgetown — lie outside the emergency planning zones of one or more nuclear facilities, according to the S.C. Emergency Management Division. Remote though the chance of danger may be, emergency personnel live daily the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
“For those who work in emergency services, planning ahead is vital, which is why training like this is so important,” Krugler said. “This class also offers a chance for some traditional first responders who may not be used to handling animals, and veterinary professionals who may not be schooled in traditional response, to practice as a ‘team’ since this teamwork may be employed in a real event.”
As co-chair of the Animal Decontamination Best Practices Working Group for the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs (NASAAEP), Reynolds is well-positioned to teach the subject. He’s an authority in animal decontamination during disasters, having served on several national working groups, including radiological planning committees for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and for Los Angeles County. He has provided classroom and hands-on instruction for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Arizona Department of Homeland Security, the National Animal Control Association, the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Louisiana State Animal Rescue Team. The NASAAEP Animal Decontamination “white paper” his group produced in 2008 was one of kind, explaining its selection and use by the Japanese government after the Fukushima disaster.
A resume like that enables Reynolds to see the issue from all sides.
“Post-Katrina, a lot of jurisdictions are struggling to meet the law of including animals,” he said. “In some counties in our state, the animal control department consists of just two people, and this may be the case in some other counties across the nation. Trainings like these allow them to compile information and prepare in ways they may not have considered.”
The Florence County training was hands-on. Dogs from area animal shelters gave the students from fire departments, hazardous materials teams and the veterinary volunteers experience performing the actual decontamination techniques that would be required in the event of an actual radiation release.
“It was an eye-opener for some people how much work goes into it,” Reynolds said. “And we were working with six dogs. Imagine 600 in an emergency situation.”
The actual process of decontamination is decidedly low-tech. Collars and other accessories go into bin for contaminated items first; animals then proceed to a soap-and-water bath — yes, they do use dishwashing liquid as well as simple doggie shampoos — where they are tended by three people: one to keep the dog calm while the other two scrub.
“Radiation from a nuclear plant accident would be in the form of a fine dust on the surface. After washing it, you allow the dog a moment to shake it off. They can get rid of 80 percent of the water right there,” Reynolds said. “The key is to separate the contaminated areas from the clean areas of the facility. Then you want to isolate and monitor the animals for a while.”
“This kind of radiation is easy for animals to lick and ingest, where it can concentrate in the thyroid and cause cancer,” he said. “Cats are even worse about doing this than dogs.”
Fortunately, the same potassium iodide that would be used to help block the radioactivity in human organs also can be used in animals, he said.
The PeeDee area has been the target of hurricane-related flooding in recent years, and Florence County Emergency Management Division (EMD) has been a key player in coordinating general emergency resources for these events. Florence County EMD has been proactive in other animal-related training as well, having co-hosted (with LPH) a Small Animal Emergency Sheltering class in 2017.
In South Carolina, Clemson LPH officials design and implement the state Emergency Support Function-17 (Animal/Agriculture Emergency Response) annex, which is a section of the state’s emergency operations plan that designates how several agencies and organizations coordinate resources in response to pet, farm and wildlife animal care needs (as well as plant and crop industry issues) before, during and after a disaster.
LPH works with partners on evacuation shelters and stables for horses and other animals in advance of hurricanes and can suspend certain legal requirements in order to help neighboring states to evacuate animals to South Carolina. They also coordinate, with the SC Association of Veterinarians, and train the SCVRC, a Unit of the Medical Reserve Corps. SCVRC members are volunteers who can assist people with emergency event-related animal or agriculture-related issues.
Once the state has weathered the disaster, LPH, a member of the State Recovery Task Force, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service and others in Clemson PSA, play key roles in helping farmers report and recover financial losses.
“Human life and safety always comes first,” Krugler said. “In an emergency, most animal issues really boil down to people issues. Our goal is to provide the safest possible circumstances for everyone, which ultimately includes animals, too.”