Everybody knows that natural disasters can strike at any time. However, nobody would have predicted that in the last four months of 2017, natural disasters would threaten three out of six of Canine Companions for Independence’s training centers.

September brought Hurricane Irma, whose high winds and rains caused downed trees and loss of power at the Southeast Region Training Center in Orlando, Florida. Even though the course of a hurricane can change in a moment’s notice, tracking of the impending storm gave staff the opportunity to be certain that emergency preparations were in place. Fortunately, the region was spared the brunt of the storm.

The natural disaster that struck near the Canine Companions® Jean and Charles Schulz Campus, home to the national headquarters and the Northwest Region Training Center in Santa Rosa, California, did not give warning. Multiple wildfires broke out on a windy night in early October and spread quickly, leaving thousands of Sonoma County residents fleeing their homes to survive. More than 20 Canine Companions staff and volunteers lost their homes. The Canine Companions campus became a refuge for staff displaced by the fires. Additionally, they joined other staff members in making certain all the Team Training participants and dogs also on campus were safe.

Although the Santa Rosa campus remained in a safe zone as the fires raged on nearby, the air quality deteriorated quickly and an increasing number of staff had to evacuate or be on alert. And with high-winds predicted to return, the decision was made to suspend the Team Training class and evacuate all 99 dogs in professional training and five litters of puppies from our Canine Early Development Center. Canine Companions’ network of devoted volunteers who lived a safe distance from the fires stepped up to assist with a well-orchestrated evacuation of all the dogs and cared for them in their homes until it was deemed safe for them to return. (We’re happy to share that the Team Training students were invited back within four weeks to complete their training.)

It seemed almost unbelievable when wildfires broke out just two months later in Southern California. The Lilac Fire erupted on December 7 in San Diego county and strong winds swiftly pushed it towards the Southwest Region Training Center in Oceanside, California. The staff moved into action and, once again with the help of volunteers, quickly evacuated all people and dogs from campus. Fortunately, evacuation orders from the Lilac Fire were lifted by December 10 and the campus was unharmed.

These disasters provide a reminder about the importance of emergency preparedness for veterinary clinics and hospitals, shelters and other facilities housing animals. Some of the elements of an emergency plan that were particularly important for Canine Companions to manage the natural disasters that impacted our regions in 2017 include the following:

    1. 1. It is best to have the option of both a nearby location as well as a more remote location for evacuation purposes.
    1. 2. Keep in mind that staff may have personal issues they will need to address in the emergency and may not be available to assist with the care of the animals.
    1. 3. Have an evacuation plan mapped out in advance with designated vehicles for transport of animals.
    1. 4. Make certain you have a means to identify animals that are evacuated (Canine Companions’ dogs have ear tattoos, ID tags and microchips).
    1. 5. Identify a system to ensure that relevant medical records, medications and dosage information are transported with the animals being evacuated.
    1. 6. Have adequate medical supplies, food and clean water on site in case you are forced to shelter in place.

We encourage everyone to invest the time to develop, review and practice emergency plans on a regular basis. You never know when disaster might strike!

If you would like to get involved with Canine Companions, we’d love to have you!

This blog post was written by Brenda S. Kennedy DVM MS, National Director of Canine Health and Research at Canine Companions®.