Who Saves Lassie? It’s Time for National First-Responder Training for Animal Rescue

Who Saves Lassie? It’s Time for National First-Responder Training for Animal Rescue


LEICESTER, Mass., Oct. 15, 2015 /PRNewswire-HISPANIC PR WIRE/ — October marks two important national monthly observances: Fire Safety, and Animal Safety & Protection. It’s time to check the operation of your home’s fire alarms—and to ask if your local fire department has been trained in rescue and first aid for your pets.

In 2004, Bart, a 13-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer, was lost in a Minnesota house fire.  By the time Bart was located, he was unresponsive. Unfortunately, the firefighters who responded to the fire were not equipped with the knowledge or resources needed to save Bart’s life. 

The ASPCA estimates 70 to 80 million dogs and 74 to 96 million cats are owned in the U.S., with more than 60 percent of households including a dog or cat. In addition, in 2014 the National Service Animal Registry reported about 7,000 emotional support animals—four times the number four years ago.  While exact statistics are hard to ascertain, unofficial reports of the U.S. Fire Administration estimate 40,000 to 150,000 pets die in household fires each year. Pets that are home alone have no way to escape a fire. Smoke alarms help humans, but the loud noise often sends pets into hiding. And firefighters who rescue pets are often ill-equipped to provide lifesaving services and oxygen to the animals efficiently.

To avoid tragic losses like Bart’s, Becker College provided a day of free first-responder training on the care and handling of animals during emergencies. Basic Animal Rescue Training (BART)—a Minnesota-based professional organization founded in 2004 by veterinarian Dr. Janet Olsen in response to Bart’s death (Olsen and her husband, a firefighter, were Bart’s owners)—has, to date, trained more than 5,000 first responders in Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma—and now, in Massachusetts.

The sad reality is most firefighters are not trained in animal rescue and first aid. A colleague who recently passed the fire captain’s exam had to read dozens of textbooks. When asked what he had learned about animal rescue in house fires, he said there are no books: “If we feel there is a chance to make a rescue, we always try to help. We are given no training on animal rescue, but we would love to have the training available.”

Emergency personnel—police, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders—are responsible for the protection and preservation of life and property. By law, pets are both living and our property. It is time we gave all first responders the authority, liability protections, and—most important—the training to save the lives of our pets. The creation of national first-responder training for animal rescue is not complicated—or costly. BART already has Department of Homeland Security-approved curriculum in place; the Emergency Medical Kits, which contain everything used in the training, cost less than $1,000 per firehouse or emergency center. 

Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the systemic failure of emergency services and emergency management to plan and care for animals in disasters. This led to passage of the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires that pets be included in emergency evacuation plans.  To meet this requirement, first responders should be trained to deal with domestic animals in the initial phase of an emergency or disaster. What remains is for municipalities to establish laws and/or policies that provide for liability, training and training resources, and continuing education for emergency personnel.

With the skills learned through BART, first responders provide safe and effective care of animals in disasters. When animal lives are saved, human lives are also saved. Let us all urge our municipalities to follow the lead of Colorado, which approved the first laws in the nation to allow first responders to attend to pets during emergency calls. This is not merely a service to the animals that provide us with unconditional love and support, but also to their humans, who love them and derive great social, emotional, and psychological benefit from them. 

This editorial was written by Julie Bailey, DVM, medical director of the Becker College animal health center and interim dean of the School of Animal Studies.

Sandy Lashin-Curewitz

Who Saves Lassie? It’s Time for National First-Responder Training for Animal Rescue