Emergency Planning

Veterinarians and municipalities underwhelmingly prepared
Karen Dallimore
Monday, 15 April 2013
By Karen Dallimore
Dr. Cathy Furness is studying the level of emergency preparedness among farm animal veterinarians and municipalities, and the stats do not look good.
Dr. Cathy Furness is studying the level of emergency preparedness among farm animal veterinarians and municipalities, and the stats do not look good.

Producers are commonly asked if they are prepared to handle an emergency (such as a disease outbreak) on their farm.

Now, farm animal veterinarians are being asked a similar question: how are they equipped to cope with a large-scale emergency in their region of practice? Coupled with this, are municipalities considering livestock in their community emergency response plans?

The answer may surprise you.

While data is still being collected, early reports from a survey being conducted by Dr. Cathy Furness, a graduate student at the Ontario Veterinary College, show that 72 per cent of large animal veterinarians have not considered emergency response planning.

What’s more, 75 per cent of those surveyed are not sufficiently prepared to maintain their own practices during an emergency.

Furness presented her preliminary findings at an Incident Commands System workshop funded jointly by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the University of Guelph, and hosted by the Ontario Livestock and Poultry Council.

She reported that while veterinarians indicated an eagerness to participate in emergency response, many also voiced uncertainty regarding their role in an emergency response plan.

WHAT IS AN EMERGENCY?

Some emergencies are obvious, like heavy rains and snow or hurricanes such as Katrina or Sandy. Canada has its fair share of weather events across the provinces, with Ontario having experienced tornados, snow, ice storms and power outages. Manitoba, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick also have their share of weather events; as well, flooding can be a major issue. And, all across the country, the risk of wildfires is ever-present.

Disease outbreaks such as avian influenza or foot and mouth disease also require large-scale response planning, but there are some emergencies that are not so obvious.

Furness asked: What about when a border closes? Production doesn’t stop and those animals in the pipeline need to be dealt with.

She said that any situation where an animal cannot receive normal care is an emergency: A barn collapse or fire, an accident or injury of livestock caregivers, a truck accident or even an economic emergency where a producer simply cannot afford to feed their animals anymore - these are all situations that require an emergency plan of some sort.

“To me it’s all under emergency preparedness,” she said. “It’s an emergency for that producer; it’s an emergency for the animal. If that animal’s not getting fed, that’s an emergency.”

WHO SHOULD TAKE THE LEAD?

The first 24 hours are the most critical time for emergency response, said Furness. “I feel it has to start with the producer. [If it’s not a road accident] they’re typically the first responders at the scene. They need to take the initiative. The government help will come, but it’s slower.”

A farmer’s plan needs to be tailored to their own needs. The best generic plan is useless if it doesn’t match their production requirements and resources. The plan needs to be designed for the hazards that are most likely to impact production, which will vary with individual farms.

Every farm should prepare and enact an emergency response plan that makes it clear to others what the farmer needs. How many animals are there? How many generators will you need to milk the cows? The river is rising: How many trucks will you need to evacuate the animals? Where will you take them? And so on.

Having answers to questions such as these will speed up the response process.

If help arrives to evacuate 10 cows and finds there are a couple of horses, a few pot-bellied pigs and a handful of pocket pets, the process can quickly get complicated and slow.

Involving your veterinarian in the process is helpful, whether in discussions about overall planning, biosecurity or humane euthanasia. But as Furness pointed out, when an emergency arises, the vet needs to ensure that they’ve got their own preparedness plan in place for their family, their animals and their business, or they won’t be able to help the farmer.

Commodity groups play an essential role as well, not only in communications, but also as a resource hub through providing education, not only in case of emergency but also throughout the year.

WHO GETS INVOLVED?

“Poultry is amazing,” said Furness, because of the strong biosecurity and response measures already in place.

While she hasn’t included the feather boards in her survey, she still encourages them to participate. Industry groups that have signed on for the survey so far include Ontario Pork and Alpaca Ontario. Furness is still in negotiations with other commodity groups and has reached some beef producers through the National Farmers’ Union. These groups have supported the research by distributing the survey to their members, and Ontario Pork has also become actively involved through initiatives surrounding humane euthanasia.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has emergency plans in place for foreign animal disease (FAD) outbreaks, for example, avian influenza, foot and mouth disease, and vesicular stomatitis in horses.

If the disease is not reportable, the plans become province-specific, and Furness points out that some provinces have more detailed plans in place than others. In Ontario, the Emergency Measures and Civil Protection Act governs the response. Once the situation escalates beyond the farm boundaries, it may require assistance from the municipality.

But if it reaches beyond the municipality, two more groups – the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) – will provide advice and guidance. EMO responded to the 2003 SARS epidemic, for example, and the 2011 tornado in Ontario.

Municipalities have their own response plans in Ontario, and it is their job to carry them out unless they’re overwhelmed or the emergency encompasses multiple municipalities, said Furness. They are required by law to have a plan in place, but there is no requirement for livestock to be considered.

“Lots of agricultural municipalities recognize animal welfare is important, so they’re investigating the issue and how to cope with livestock,” said Furness. As it stands, many are unaware of livestock numbers in their jurisdiction, and many make the assumption that someone else will take the lead.

THE NEXT STEP

With the majority of data already in from veterinarians, Furness will focus on gathering and analyzing data from producers throughout the summer of 2013.

Her goal is to find out where emergency response planning is at before making suggestions for other plans with veterinarians, governments and emergency operations groups. As she said, this survey will lay the groundwork for what comes next. 

Results will be confidentially shared with participating commodity groups, followed by the release of the abstract to a wider audience, from veterinarians to emergency responders. Full results are expected by the fall of 2013.

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