Rescue me

Australian vets are quick to volunteer during disasters. Now the Australian Veterinary Emergency Response Team has been established to coordinate their efforts, reports Harry Pearl

In the week following Victoria’s Black Saturday Fires in 2009, in which 173 people died, the Victorian office of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) was inundated with calls from vets and members of the public asking for advice.

As the fires raged across the state on February 7 and 8—incinerating homes, crops and schools—scores of animals were caught by the fast-moving flames. The RSPCA later put the death toll of livestock and wildlife at more than one million.

Callers to the AVA wanted to know what was going on, how they could help and who they should contact about animals burnt in the fire.

But the scale of the disaster caught veterinary and animal welfare organisations off guard. It soon became clear, according to the AVA submission to the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, that there was no effective coordination of veterinary response.

Truckloads of supplies that started arriving from interstate were distributed haphazardly. The role of different organisations was unclear. And, despite the best intentions of vets and vet nurses who volunteered their services, there was no screening process to make sure demands for specific veterinary services were matched with people who had the right skills.

“They were totally overrun,” says Maryann Dalton, chief executive of Vets Beyond Borders (VBB).

For Dalton—and many others in the veterinary field—the incident highlighted the need for a national emergency response structure that ensured the right people were on the ground at the right time.

“If they had a database of people that they could have called on, who were prepared to go out in these type of events—and we collected information on all the different skills that they had—then that could be invaluable,” she says.

Six years later, VBB started work on the Australian Veterinary Emergency Response Team. The initiative, known as AVERT, was launched in May last year and now provides a database of experienced volunteer vets, vet nurses and technicians who can be deployed in the event of an emergency.

“We’ve got to have all this in place in advance so that we can mobilise. When it happens that’s not the time to think, ‘Heck, how can we get more people here?”—Ian Douglas, chairman, AVERT

Australia is prone to a range of natural disasters and regularly sees bushfires, floods, cyclones and droughts. It’s also not immune to disease outbreaks like foot-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease and rabies, which could have a devastating impact on rural businesses.

In an emergency, state and territory authorities are responsible for rescues, care and disposal of animals. But often government-employed vets can be overwhelmed and require assistance.

That’s where a well-trained and organised pool of volunteer vets can fit in, says Ian Douglas, chairman of AVERT.

“We’re positioning ourselves to be able to respond on a regional, state or national basis depending on what situation arises,” Douglas says. “It’s not just bushfires; it’s as much about the emergence of exotic diseases as anything else.”

So far, the response to the initiative has been overwhelmingly positive. State and Commonwealth governments have been supportive of the idea. So have the AVA and Animal Health Australia.

Dr Norm Blackman, who was called on to help coordinate the AVA response following the bushfires, said a group like AVERT could be invaluable in the wake of future disasters.

“Pre-planning is critical to any emergency—having plans in place that allow you to bring together the right people quickly and respond. I think that is where AVERT could really make a difference,” he says.

More than 200 vets, vet nurses and technicians have registered with the program. Volunteers are screened, with professionals who have worked in disaster zones or with animal diseases looked on particularly favourably. However, vets who are willing to undergo training—often via online courses—are welcomed too.

Volunteers are kept up to date with regular bulletins, telling them about weather emergency warnings and training opportunities. All professionals who register and pay a small fee are insured.

“It’s an invaluable source and everyone thinks it’s wonderful. But we are struggling to get funding for it—that’s our main problem.”Maryann Dalton, chief executive, Vets Beyond Borders

But despite the positive feedback, funding has been less forthcoming than VBB had hoped for and presents a major obstacle to AVERT’s future success.

VBB needs $150,000 to run the program and has no specific funds available to allocate. A budget has been prepared to cover the cost of employing a program manager to handle the day-to-day operation, including keeping the database updated, communicating with stakeholders, marketing and fundraising. Thirty thousand dollars has been earmarked to cover travel costs in the case of an emergency.

“We applied for $50,000 from the Commonwealth Government, $50,000 through the states and we’re trying to fund $50,000 through appeals from industry, corporates and donors,” Dalton says. “So far the governments have both said, ‘We don’t have any money.’”

Dalton says the program has been getting some support from pharmaceutical companies and corporate bodies, but it’s not enough. The cost of running the program is eating into the finances of VBB.

“To me it’s an invaluable resource and everyone thinks it’s wonderful. But we are struggling to get funding for it—that’s our main problem,” she says.

Although AVERT is yet to deploy any volunteers, it has a growing database of qualified veterinary workers who are ready to go, organisers say.

AVERT vets with burns experience were put on stand-by following the bushfires that ravaged parts of New South Wales on February 12 and 13 this year. They also have professionals prepared to respond to an emergency animal disease outbreak. Many volunteers have experience working with animal diseases because they have volunteered with VBB abroad.

Douglas says exotic diseases and natural disasters do not respect borders and it is essential Australia is prepared.

“We’ve got to have all this in place in advance so that we can mobilise,” Douglas says. “When it happens that’s not the time to think, ‘Heck, how can we get more people here?’ That’s what has been going on up until now and it’s not really a very valid or effective response.”

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