Animal emergency plan in the works

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

A new Faulkner County Animal Emergency Response Plan is one result of the 2014 tornado in Faulkner County, and organizers hope it will never be needed.

But if it is, they’ll be ready.

With the devastation that struck Mayflower, Vilonia and other places in the 501 last year, it quickly became obvious that there was no plan to deal with small animals that were also victims of the storm. A plan did exist for livestock, but there was nothing for family pets that were lost or injured.

“At the tornado site, the volunteers soon found out nobody was in charge,” said Donna Clawson, co-chair with Catherine Swift of the committee that formulated the plan. “Everybody assumed the sheriff’s group was in charge, and we’d go ask them something and they’d say, ‘We don’t care; go do what you want.’

“Now there’s a definite order. It starts with the county judge and goes through a proper chain of command.”

Swift, who teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and wrote her dissertation on the Reading Education Assistance Dogs Program, an international program that uses therapy dogs to help at-risk students succeed at reading, agreed that last year’s response was fractured.

“All of these very talented, passionate people responded, but we were all fragmented,” she said. “There was no unity. Incident Command didn’t know we existed. This way we know what we can do, and they know what we can do.”

According to the plan, “household pets, service and working animal issues in disasters and emergencies have been recognized as important factors in the safety and well-being of people. Increasingly, household pets are considered family members by American families and failure to make provisions for the evacuation, sheltering, rescue and care of household pets and service animals can contribute significantly to evacuation failure or delays and impact the mental health of disaster survivors.”

The policy follows the Faulkner County Disaster Plan and was created to localize state and federal guidelines.

“We wanted to make sure we could fit into a larger level if needed,” Swift said. “The state looks at Arkansas in regional areas, and Faulkner County is one of nine counties in Region 8, so if we were asked to come in, we could potentially respond to one of those other counties as well.”

She said the response referred to not only rescue but also to house, foster, rehome or return animals to their original homes.

Swift has been designated Faulkner County coordinator for small animals. Hank Chaney, Faulkner County extension agent, is the coordinator for livestock; he was the go-to person in the aftermath of last year’s tornado.

The plan designates six teams with specific responsibilities that would be important in any disaster, weather-related or not: field operations/search and rescue; veterinarian coordinator; public affairs liaison; emergency shelter manager; administration/logistics and volunteer organization.

“Last year, a lot of vets volunteered, and they weren’t able to be reimbursed without the paper trail,” Clawson said. “Now, everything is going to be documented. We’ve got a system so when we find an animal, it is taken to triage, assessed to see what it needs, taken to a shelter to be photographed and to have an I.D. tag around his neck. Each pet will be walked, taken care of and returned through I.D.

“Everything’s going to be set up so when somebody comes looking for their pet, we can say, ‘Yes, we have him.’ If your house is blown away, you may not have any identification, but most people have a Facebook or cell phone picture of their dog or their boa constrictor.”

The goal is to be able to keep 100 animals displaced from a disaster for 30 days.

Clawson called it “a great plan, very comprehensive.”

“When you think of a disaster, you think of a tornado, but it could be a flood, for example,” she said. “We have different scenarios and different trainings.”

Committee members are doing ongoing training exercises, including a FEMA-directed one in Vilonia in May with the Vilonia fire chief as incident commander.

“What those exercises do is let you know what works and what doesn’t,” Swift said.

The disaster plan is the second piece in the puzzle of the animal control issue in Faulkner County. The Quorum Court, led by Justice of the Peace Randy Higgins as chair of the Courts and Public Safety Committee for several years, passed the county’s first animal control ordinance in November 2013.

According to the animal emergency response plan, its primary missions are animal welfare, coordination, communication, resource support, assessment, situational awareness and reporting and transition to recovery.

Many hands have been involved in the plan’s formation. The team received a grant of $3,333 from the national office of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for equipment, and other partnerships are being explored, including a potential one with Tractor Supply Company.

“But we’ve got to get a Faulkner County shelter because we need to be able to store everything,” Clawson said.

Higgins echoed that need.

“As tragic as the tornado was, No. 1, it identified the glaring troubles we’ve had with animal control, and No. 2, it brought the community together to try to solve the problem,” he said. “I think we can take some of that momentum and potentially move forward to solve that shelter issue. In the last year, year-and-a-half, we&rsqu
o;ve made a lot of progress in Faulkner County.”

He said both the ordinance and the disaster plan needed the shelter element to maximize their potential.

“The ordinance came first, absolutely, because we have to know what our expectations are,” he said. “Secondly, the disaster plan can be implemented. It’s ready to go now should we have another disaster, but a big part of the plan has to do with the shelter.

“The lack of a shelter is impacting the effectiveness of the ordinance and the disaster plan. Both would be more effective if we had the shelter.”

Clawson said her committee had worked on the plan since shortly after the April 2014 tornado. They have put many hundreds of hours into it.

“The last plan was about a paragraph, and this one is not,” she said. “We’ve tried to account for everything we can possibly account for.”

Clawson, who is also on the board of the Friends of the Conway Animal Shelter, said the group had been creative in its thinking.

“(New Faulkner County) Judge (Jim) Baker has some great ideas, and one that he had was that when we get our Faulkner County shelter to have the sheriff’s office make that a substation so somebody is there all the time,” she said. “We could also store trailers there.

“If we have fosters and volunteers, we can supply food. Without a shelter, our committee will go look and see if the horses have access to water, if the property is fenced. That way, we wouldn’t have somebody say, ‘I can do that,’ and we get there and they live in the middle of Tucker Creek. A lot of people mean well but are not able to do it.”

Swift, she said, was “brilliant.”

“She’s been involved with several disasters,” Clawson said. “I’ve probably worked hundreds of hours on this, but she’s probably worked thousands.

“I’m Tonto. She’s the Lone Ranger.”

Donna Waugh is another important part of the team. She has been involved in search and rescue for some time; Clawson said she had been to Joplin and Oklahoma City following tornadoes there with not only cadaver dogs but also ones that can search out live people and animals.

“She talks about having the right boots on the ground, and we’re blessed to have her,” Clawson said.

Clawson said Waugh lived in Little Rock, and that several others involved with the plan are also from nearby counties.

“A disaster, especially a tornado, can skip around,” she said. “If we are missed, we’re going to be able to go and help in other counties. That’s a big plus.”

Besides a core group of about 30 volunteers, the committee relies on other volunteers who foster for rescue groups and otherwise assist the cause.

“These people are so dedicated to what they do,” Swift said. “It’s just amazing. If a call goes out on social media, they spring into action, and it’s like a personal challenge to them. They are very good at what they do.”

Higgins reiterated that he didn’t come to the Quorum Court with an animal control agenda, although he has become synonymous with the issue.

“This wasn’t my passion beforehand, but as we’ve gotten into it, the need is pretty obvious,” he said. “I think there’s a balance. Faulkner County still has a large rural population, and I don’t think Pulaski County-style leash laws will work here. But at the same time, people need to be protected, and what we’re doing is not working.”

But with the ordinance and the disaster plan, things are looking up, officials agree.

“We’ve got all this going,” Clawson said. “We just pray we never have to use it.”