Large Animal Rescue for the Fire Service

Large animal rescue for firefighters
A veterinarian from the National Veterinarian Response Team (NVRT) examines an inured horse brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in Beaumont, Texas, following Hurricane Rita's landfall. Courtesy of FEMA.

By Chandra Davis

Large animal responses are a species unto themselves. One must remember that animals are not human and cannot speak to us. Firefighters and first responders must learn to read animals' body language to be safe in the field. Large animals include but not limited to horses, farm animals, and zoological species.

One of the first things that a fire department or rescue unit needs is a large animal veterinarian to be on the call-out list. A veterinarian is a must to assist with rescue, but remember veterinarians are NOT trained in the incident command system (ICS) or other rescue functions. A vet will be able to assess the animal's immediate needs in the field.

Incident command is very important, however, when working with multiple jurisdictions; it may be easier to use plain language. Large animals can hurt a human very quickly. Remember that you do not know what the animals are thinking. Horses, for instance, have a" fight or flight" response and will usually opt for flight, trying to get away from what they see as someone trying to harm them.

 A list of agencies/individuals that may be involved can include the following:

  • Animal control
  • Law enforcement
  • Firefighters
  • Veterinarians
  • EMS
  • The owner of the animal(s)

Safety has top priority.

There are two rules in rescue. The first rule is, "There is always time to breathe." The first thing you need to do in any situation is to stop and take a breath. This allows you to ground yourself and prevents you from rushing into a no-win situation. The second rule is, "You're number one." Always take care of yourself first. This sounds selfish on the surface, but if you're not safe and you get into trouble, you become part of the problem and will be of no use to anyone. Large animals speak with their bodies more than their voice.  A first responder may not be able to understand the anima's way of "speaking." Many large animals breathe through their nasal passages only,  NOT their mouth (unlike humans), so if you cover the nose area, you can suffocate the animal. Horses also respond negatively to the bright yellow on turnout gear because of the way animals contrast light.

Never stand directly behind or right in front of a large animal. This is the danger zone, and you could be injured. If the animal's feet are facing you, you are in its path and could be injured, so don't stand there. With horses, the ears can indicate the animal's disposition:  if the ears are forward, the horse is listening; if they are straight back and flat, the animal is likely to try and injure a rescuer.

In rescue situations, have the veterinarian check the condition of the horse and administer a sedative, if necessary. If a horse is injured and trapped in an overturned trailer, he will need to be sedated.

Don't sedate the horse before the vet arrives. That will make her job that much harder because:

  • It's hard to determine injuries on a sedated horse.
  • Pulse and respiration will be skewed.
  • If the horse is in shock, it may make things worse.

If a trailer is involved and it's on its side, do NOT fly open the back door and look inside. The animal will attempt to escape and wind up doing more harm. Only about 1 percent of rescuers have any knowledge of how to safely remove a horse from a rollover. Make sure that you attach a long rope to the horse's halter so that he is contained when pulled from the trailer.

Fire departments can use 2 ½-inch hoseline as a strap for rescue operations or large tow straps from a tow truck service for big rigs. It takes a number of personnel to accomplish this task. DO NOT USE THE TAIL OR LEGS TO PULL THE HORSE FROM THE TRAILER! If you know horse anatomy, you can figure out to use the mass of the animal.

By using the proper techniques, the pressure exerted on the horse's body is minimal. Most often, dragging is the only way to remove a horse from an overturned trailer, although in certain circumstances--if you have a stock trailer or slant load without dividers, and the horse is uninjured--it's possible that he can scramble up and be backed out of the trailer after the lead rope holding him to the side is cut or untied. If there are more horses involved, it becomes more difficult. Remember that if the animal is down in its trailer, you can become a victim very fast if you are in the danger zone.  Be sure to slide the strap under the mass of the animal's body and have people on each side of the exterior of the trailer. Have the vet determine if the animal needs sedation.

Backwards Drag. This procedure is extremely dangerous. Use all available personnel for safe removal.  Animal Control can assist also with the animal expertise.  Always have a public information officer assist the owner, and keep the owner away from immediate operations unless he is trained in large animal rescue.

 Here are some ideas of equipment fire departments can stock.

  • ½ inch rescue rope to be used to make emergency rope halters and halter/lead combinations.
  • Six- to eight-foot pieces of 3½-inch wide fire hose with loops sewn on each end or flat looped double thickness tow strap.
  • Inner tubes from cars with a can of commercial tire inflator/sealant.
  • 8- × 10-foot waterproof canvas tarps to drag animals.
  • Fleece-lined breast collar. Can use a western type cinch or a three-foot section of 4-inch fire hose.
  • Horse head protector (You can also use a life vest, bra, etc. in a pinch).
  • Insulated horse blanket.
  • Fleece-lined hobbles.

It never hurts to reach out to horse groups in your area that may have an extra set of equipment. This can become a great situation and partnership. There are many great training groups across the United States that will train firefighters hands-on in large animal rescue. Go to SAVE YOUR HORSE.com for a list of training sessions across the United States and Canada.

Chandra Davis is an animal rescue specialist for the Hornbeak (TN) Volunteer Fire Department and a member of the Tennessee Disaster Animal Response Team.

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