Author(s): Ryan McGinnis. Published on July 1, 2014.

Two years ago, John Haven was sitting down to eat dinner with his wife in his Gainesville, Florida, home when his phone rang. It was a local fire chief calling with the news that a dog had fallen down a 50-foot sinkhole in a city park while playing fetch with its owner. First responders were on scene and preparing a rescue, but the chief was concerned about the plan, which involved an improvised rope-and-pulley system that would lower a responder into the hole, then lift him out as he held the dog in his arms. “Your team can do this better, smarter, and safer, right?” the chief asked.

“Sure,” Haven said. “We’ll be there in 30 minutes.”

Animal technical rescue

A new chapter in NFPA 1670 can improve on scenes like this, starting with personal protective equipment for responders.

PHOTO: AP/Wide World

Haven’s team is the University of Florida Veterinary Emergency Treatment Services, part of the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which Haven directs. The 50-member team includes a smaller core group trained in both advanced human technical rescue and animal technical rescue, and Haven was part of a five-member crew that responded to the chief’s request for assistance with the dog in the sinkhole. Haven’s group had conducted previous training exercises with Alachua County Fire Rescue, the first responders on the scene, and the team was in touch with the chief while they were en route to the park, allowing it to get a compete picture of the situation and assign tasks before it arrived. Haven described for the chief the type of rigging setup they’d need for the rescue, and the chief told him it would be ready to go when they got there.

Even with the preparation, Haven grew nervous as he neared the park that spring evening. “It’s stressful when you show up to a rescue site and there are a lot of people suddenly celebrating your arrival and thinking everything is going to be okay,” he recalls. “Especially with this dog. I didn’t know if he was busted to pieces or had suffered some other severe injury, and I didn’t want to be in a situation where I would reunite him with the owners and then have to euthanize the animal in front of them, a hundred other people, and the press. In situations like these, you prepare for the worst but hope for the best.”

It was a Friday night, and the park was crowded when Haven arrived. People were gathering to watch the rescue attempt, and Haven held his breath as he approached the sinkhole. Lying on his stomach, he peered into the darkness, flashlight illuminating the caverns below. The dog, a 50-pound springer spaniel named Joe, looked up at Haven with his tail wagging enthusiastically. “He had this playful look in his eyes that basically asked, ‘Well, are we going to get this done?’” Haven says.

He studied the rope-and-pulley system erected by the first responders and suggested minor modifications. The team’s plan called for a harness to lift the dog, rather than have a rescuer hold the animal in his arms; if the dog struggled or the rescuer lost his grip, the dog could plummet down the shaft of the sinkhole yet again, risking further injury.

Ten minutes after Haven’s group arrived, a veterinarian from the team was lowered into the hole. After another 10 minutes, Joe and his rescuer emerged, the dog cradled in an orange harness. Joe had suffered minor injuries and was successfully reunited with his owner.

While Haven was able to supervise the rescue so that it was done safely and correctly, first responders once regularly arrived at such scenes with little or no guidance or training on conducting animal technical rescues and no clear idea of where to turn for information. Organizing and executing a rescue so that it minimizes the risk of harm to the victim and the rescuers requires extensive training, as well as a clear understanding of the role each member of a rescue team must play. Too often, though, first responders were left with only their best judgment to carry out a rescue—a poor substitute for proven methods devised by seasoned experts.

But that’s all changing. The 2014 edition of
NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, includes a new chapter detailing animal technical rescue for first responders. “By laying out a general framework of the group responsibilities alongside the new addition of the technical animal search and rescue chapter, first responders can have a better understanding of how to handle certain risks posed by rescuing an animal in danger,” says Ryan Depew, staff liaison for the NFPA 1670 technical committee.

The chapter was the result of a four-year effort led by Haven, who says he’s pleased with the outcome. “It sets a great precedent that can be improved upon in later editions,” he says. “It feels awesome to help everyone make that step forward, to help animals be saved while keeping first responders safe.”

50 foot sinkhole in Florida

The tale of Joe the springer spaniel began with a 50-foot sinkhole in a Florida park, which Joe tumbled down while playing fetch. A responder from the University of Florida’s animal technical rescue team is lowered into the sinkhole.

Dog safely raised back to surface

The rescuer managed to affix a rescue harness to Joe. Both were safely raised back to the surface.

dog is reunited with human companion

Joe was reunited with his human companions. The dog suffered minor injuries. The new chapter on animal technical rescue in NFPA 1670 addresses the safety of both responders and animals.

Human to animal

NFPA 1670 is not intended as a certification standard for technical search and rescue but, rather, as an outline of what is required of response teams that want to provide those services. The standard breaks down the functional capability of the response teams into three levels: awareness, operations, and technician.

The awareness level requires only that personnel be trained to recognize and identify situations that call for a technical rescue. Operations and technician levels involve using rescue equipment and techniques to carry out actual rescues, with the technician level reserved for only the most advanced rescue team strategies.

Once the organization has determined the level of functional capability it needs, the focus shifts to ensuring that response personnel are adequately trained and/or certified in the required disciplines and that the team as a whole is capable of meeting the requirements set forth in NFPA 1670.

For example, organizations providing animal technical rescue at the technician level must also be able to provide rope rescue at the technician level. To obtain these skills, some of the individuals on the team would have to be trained to an advanced level in rope rescue. (NFPA 1006, Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications, details the job performance requirements of a Level II rope rescue technician and can be used for training and/or certification.) While it is not required that every member of the team have an advanced level of training, an assessment of the unit can determine whether it meets the requirements of NFPA 1670.

Haven’s early training focused on human rescue, often as a part of disaster response activities. As a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, he was assigned to air transportable hospitals, primary emergency care facilities including surgical, x-ray, and basic lab functions that can be packed into transport aircraft and delivered anywhere in the world on short notice. His experiences in the Air Force, as well as those as a volunteer firefighter, demonstrated the importance of planning and preparation, he says. “I can’t be an expert on every topic I’m involved in,” says Haven, whose current duties as a veterinary college director also include disaster response. “But I learned that by having a good team and the ability to lead them, along with asking the right questions, you can solve almost anything thrown your way.”

When he became director of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medecine in 2004, Haven’s experience spent managing disaster responses came in handy as he soon found himself facing one of Florida’s worst hurricane seasons. As hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne pushed their way through Florida and other states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, Haven was asked by the state to assemble a team that would perform technical search and rescue for animals, and provide emergency medical care for animals in need.

During Hurricane Frances, Haven and his team of volunteers were called to assist in the rescue of numerous horses trapped by flood waters. Armed with borrowed gear, they trudged through the waist-high water and systematically attached ropes and halters to the horses, leading them to safety. Despite the operation’s success, Haven was bothered by the experience. “This was definitely a situation that could’ve been much worse—what if the water was deeper or moving?,” he recalls. “We didn’t have the necessary training or the right gear to carry out the rescue in a way that was completely safe for everyone involved. It brought to our attention the needs and concerns for animal technical rescue and team member safety.”

At the time, there were no official codes or guidelines that rescue teams could refer to in order to carry out animal technical rescues, leaving many crews to improvise their own rescue strategies. As Haven began to explore ways to address the lack of resources for animal technical rescue, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, resulting in an unprecedented disaster that many emergency response teams simply were not equipped to handle.

Of the many tragic stories that emerged from New Orleans during and after Katrina, few were more heart-wrenching than the accounts of people being told by rescue personnel that they had to leave their pets behind in the wrecked houses and flooded streets. The policy produced a national outcry, and in 2006 Congress passed the Pets Evaluation and Transportation Standards Act, also known as the PETS Act, which allowed for federal organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to accommodate the rescue and safety needs of household pets in disasters and to reimburse state and local governments for costs associated with these activities.

The first responder community began to take notice. “Katrina was a significant catalyst to get the entire first responder community to realize people are going to treat their animals as their children, and we need to accommodate and account for them in a disaster or rescue scenario,” Haven says. “The sheer scale of Katrina and the damage it caused really magnified this need.”

To get information on animal technical rescue into the hands of first responders, Haven turned to Richie Wright, an expert in human technical rescue. Wright also runs Wright Rescue Solutions, a Florida-based consulting company that specializes in regulatory safety compliance issues related to confined space and other forms of technical rescue. Wright trained Haven and his team in an operations-level course on rope rescue, and in 2011, Haven and Wright began to discuss applying the techniques to animal rescue.

“He took a personal interest in what our team was doing and really understood that we could bridge the gap between the dynamics of human and animal rescue,” Haven says. “It evolved into an awesome partnership.” Haven and his team have since completed additional human technical rescue training in areas such as rope technician, rope instructor, confined space technician, and swiftwater technician. By Haven’s estimation, the group is one of the most highly trained animal technical rescue teams in the country.

Wright, a member of the NFPA 1670 technical committee, sought to make Haven a part of the five-year revision process for the standard, which would result in a new edition in 2014—the edition they hoped could finally cover animal technical rescue. Wright knew first responders were inclined to try to help in such situations, even if they were untrained and the circumstances were unfamiliar, and that the risk of injury to responders and animals was significant. “It was something I ultimately thought was important to address in the new edition of the standard,” Wright says. “I knew John was the one who could help make that happen.”

The making of an animal rescue chapter

To address the need for an official training guide dedicated to animal technical rescue, Haven began developing an operations-level large-animal technical rescue course, which eventually became FEMA’s only approved course on the subject. “When I set up my operations-level class, I designed it with what NFPA 1670 needed to be and what it already had with humans,” Haven says. “I went with the fundamental idea that you’re just changing the patient. You can’t do any more or less when you’re moving an animal because it’s ultimately just another victim.”

In 2012, five days after helping rescue the dog from the Gainesville sinkhole, Haven presented his proposed changes to the NFPA 1670 technical committee. “I stressed the need for the development of a standard that would accommodate elements of animal technical search and rescue,” he says. “Without one, no one could be truly educated in the subject because there was no material to teach with and no consistency in what would be in the course.”

With the example of the sinkhole dog driving home Haven’s point, the committee began to gather material to add to the standard. Borrowing extensively from the operations-level course Haven designed and working with a national network of subject matter experts—notably Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, an organization that introduced Haven to large animal technical rescue, and Rescue 3 International, with an expertise in small animal technical rescue—the committee created an entire chapter dedicated to the details of animal technical rescue. Chapter 17 and Annex K of the 2014 edition covers a wide range of material, from animal behavior cues—such as the tail position of a cat or dog or an animal’s general posture, so first responders can estimate the mental state of an endangered animal—to commonly used techniques and equipment such as makeshift muzzles, harnesses, and a range of other gear. The committee made sure the new chapter addressed appropriate responses to rescues involving both small and large animals.

Haven, now a member of the NFPA 1670 technical committee, and his colleagues are optimistic about the future of training related to animal technical rescue. He says the new material in the standard will help training become more widespread. “Everyone will share an understanding of the same material,” he says. “This will allow for more training programs to receive funding to educate others, which in turn will allow for more programs to be available for first responders.”

Haven and the rest of the committee are already looking at ways the standard can be improved in its next revision process. The committee is discussing ways to more closely align NFPA 1670 with NFPA 1006, the standard for technical rescuer professional qualifications, and NFPA 1983, Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services. By doing so, the next edition of NFPA 1670 would clearly establish the roles needed to carry out rescues and ensure that the equipment necessary for animal technical rescues is strong enough to handle heavy loads.

Despite his years of work on the project, Haven looks back on the NFPA 1670 process with a deep sense of pride. “I think the first attempt to implement animal technical rescue into the standard went really well,” he says. “We had a lot of support from the fire rescue community, which I think shows that this kind of content was something that people within that community knew needed to be added. We were able to pull together a great group of people who made this a priority.”

Kicked, Bitten, + Scratched
Some of the material covered in the new chapter on animal
technical rescue in NFPA 1670

+ Behavior cues for a range of animals, including dogs, cats, and horses

+ How to create an improvised rescue muzzle

+ Emergency rope halters for horses and other large animals

+ Methods used to secure and move large animals, including ropes,
hoses, knots, slings, and other techniques

+ How to use a portable fencing system to contain and direct animals

+ Special hazards present when dealing with animals in a rescue situation, including biting, kicking, scratching, and other threats

+ Personal protective equipment for first responders

+ When to consider the use of animal sedation

+ Harness configurations for dogs and other small animals

+ Overview of mud rescues and risks for both animal and rescuer

+ How to handle trailer accidents involving animals

+ How to measure the weight of an animal using weight tape

+ How to create a tail tie for direction pulls, provide rear end manipulation, and assist with standing efforts for large animals

Ryan McGinnis is a public affairs intern at NFPA and a student in the journalism program at Northeastern University.