Deployment with Urban Search and Rescue

In September 2013, Laura McLain Madsen, DVM of Holladay Veterinary Hospital in Salt Lake City, UT had an amazing experience deploying with FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) to the flooding in Colorado. She has been working with the search dogs and handlers for about six years, and then officially joined US&R Utah Task Force 1 in 2012 as team veterinarian.

Some of the hundreds of pets who evacuated with their owners on Army helicopters.

Some of the hundreds of pets who evacuated with their owners on Army helicopters.

There are 28 US&R task forces across the country, each comprised of several hundred people and a dozen or so dogs. Unlike smaller search and rescue teams that are focused on finding people lost in the wilderness, urban search and rescue teams are large teams with heavy-duty equipment to focus on rescuing people trapped in urban environments after large-scale disasters. The disasters to which US&R deploys include terrorist attacks (World Trade Center), hurricanes (Katrina), earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. Each task force is capable of deploying within four hours of a disaster, with all the equipment, supplies and personnel necessary to be self-sufficient for 72 hours.

Most of her teammates are firefighters, since they already have training in rigging, extrication and rescue. The team is also comprised of physicians, structural engineers and canine handlers.

Laura McLain McLain, DVM, and “Zeteo,” a search and rescue dog.

Laura McLain McLain, DVM, and “Zeteo,” a search and rescue dog.

The team was called up shortly after midnight on September 13, 2013.  Dragging herself out of bed, Dr. McLain got her uniform and equipment, and drove to the warehouse. She performed pre-deployment exams on the four dogs, and filled out their health certificates. The team spent most of that day convoying to Boulder in a long line of semis, trucks and vans. All roads into Colorado were closed that crossed into the state through a highway patrol roadblock. The team finally got to the Boulder Airport around 6:00pm, where they set up their base of operations, alongside the US&R task force from Nebraska.

As a team veterinarian, Dr. McLain’s primary goal was to keep the search dogs healthy so they can do their job of finding any individuals that were trapped. All of the Utah team dogs remained healthy for the entire deployment, but one of the Nebraska team dogs became ill, with profuse diarrhea and dehydration. The Nebraska task force does not have a veterinarian (less than half the task forces nationally have DVM’s) so Dr. McLain treated him as well and he was back to work the next day.

Dr. McLain was also called on to examine pets of evacuee, where there were long lines of evacuees coming off helicopters. 20 Army Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters flew back and forth between the canyons and the airport, evacuating residents and their pets. Some helicopter loads had more animals than people. Of course there were many dogs and cats, but also a fair number of exotic pets: parrots, turtles, small mammals, geese, fish, and even a monkey. Overall, the pets were amazingly healthy and happy. A few dogs had minor abrasions and lacerations from the flooding that were treated.

The deployment lasted a week. Dr. McLain expressed that despite being sore, soaked, and mentally and physically exhausted, it wasan invaluable experience for her and all of the other team members involved.