Before You Volunteer at a Disaster Site

Some disaster areas, such as Moore, Oklahoma, after the 2013 tornado, can look like war zones. Photo: Maj. Geoff Legler/Wikimedia Commons If you choose to volunteer in an emergency or disaster situation, there are a number of very important factors

Some disaster areas, such as Moore, Oklahoma, after the 2013 tornado, can look like war zones.

Photo: Maj. Geoff Legler/Wikimedia Commons

If you choose to volunteer in an emergency or disaster situation, there are a number of very important factors to consider before loading up and leaving—even if the destination is local:  

  • Have both a personal and family evacuation plan in the event you’re a victim.
  • Do not deploy anywhere, even locally, without accessing accurate situational reports to learn about the risks and hazards. Keep in mind that these might not be available immediately after the event.
  • If possible, determine if the skill sets needed (or likely to be) are clearly in your field of expertise. This might include shipping horses, setting up temporary shelters, acquiring resources, offering veterinary medical assistance, etc.
  • Determine what you’ll be able to access personally at either the staging or working area. Is housing, food, and/or transportation, etc. being provided? Don’t go into a disaster area blindly. Consider also your own potential medical needs.  
  • What are the credentialing requirements? What kind of identification and approval do you need to get into the staging or critical area? Veterinarians crossing state lines need to know ahead of time what licensing issues might arise. I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual for volunteers to be denied access to the area.
  • If you self-deploy as a volunteer, be sure to inform family, friends, and business associates, providing them with an agenda and means of communication.
  • Upon arriving at the staging or critical area, determine the communication resources. In my experience, cell phones are often of no use. The chain of communication and, thus, command may only be through certain individuals. Communication among responders is almost always a dilemma. Understanding the principles of the Incident Command System is essential.   
  • At the staging area or site, determine who is in charge of the entire operation (who you report to) and how those communications are handled.
  • You’re probably better equipped to deal with a local disaster than a remote one, as you understand the availability and acquisition of resources and potential risks and hazards. If you’re going into a less-familiar area and have friends or contacts nearby, they might be your first means for information about resources.
  • Note that power might not be available and fuel for generators and vehicles could be difficult to obtain.
  • Unless you’re the designated public information officer, beware of providing information to the press. Also be careful about taking and circulating pictures. The release of erroneous information can lead to further problems.  

In my present role with the Texas A&M veterinary team, along with four decades of experience, I’ve become very familiar with how chaotic these situations can be. Whether it’s an explosion, flood, wildfire, hurricane, or other event, both injured and “stray” animals abound. It’s unusual to find loose animals that have any usable form of identification. Thus, determining  animals’ ownership and returning those rescued can be a dilemma.

Some animals are past anyone’s ability to save and must be humanely euthanized. Yet veterinarians must perform the procedure without an owner present; this is best addressed by obtaining at least two professional (licensed veterinary) opinions.   

My experience is that volunteers lacking necessary skill sets, situational awareness, and common sense end up causing additional problems. Disasters can pose many potentially life-threatening hazards (down power lines, open gas lines, chemical spills, rushing water, criminal activity, etc.). Human safety is absolutely critical; remember that human recovery and safety always take precedence over animal recovery in these scenarios.  

One very useful step you can take prior to a dilemma is to contact your county/jurisdiction emergency operations center, which is required to have an animal issues committee. Ideally, such a committee develops plans for evacuation, animal sheltering, and veterinary medical operations. By making contact, you can determine how to volunteer and network and what kind of credentialing is available.

A successful operation—and by that I mean returning as many healthy animals back to their owners as possible—requires an enormous amount of coordination and communication at all levels. The rewards, however, are simply untold!


William Moyer, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, is a former professor of equine sports medicine at and an active member of Texas A&M University’s Veterinary Emergency Team. He’s been both a volunteer and a leader in a variety of disaster situations, including barn fires, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and chemical plant explosions.

Originally published in the July 2015 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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