Minnesota Veterinary Reserve Corps First in Nation to Test Specific Emergency Skills

In July, Minnesota Veterinary Reserve Corps volunteers participated in a drill to test their ability to respond to a radiation leak. It was the first drill of its kind in the nation. A total of 384 veterinary professionals have signed up for the corps, a voluntary organization created in February 2004, to assist with emergencies involving animals. It is one of at least 10 state veterinary reserve corps formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The groups were formed to augment the ability of state and national forces to respond to animal disease outbreaks, said Ty Vannieuwenhoven, DVM, ACVPM, area emergency coordinator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services Veterinary Services team.

The National Animal Health Emergency Response Corps funds some corps activities, and state groups provide volunteers with training and the authority to quarantine local areas, said Vannieuwenhoven. "Its a state and federal mobilization system. Its all intertwined. State groups respond to something short-term as volunteers," he said, "but for a more protracted event like a disease outbreak they could be brought on as [state or federal] employees for a longer period of time."

For example, volunteers were sent to the United Kingdom in 2001 to respond to the foot and mouth disease outbreak. They also helped with the avian influenza epidemic in Virginia in 2002 and assisted with the Newcastle outbreak in California in 2003, Vannieuwenhoven said.

In Minnesota, three one-day training sessions are provided throughout the year for volunteers, who include 125 veterinarians, 110 technicians, 132 students and eight other individuals. Participation in the corps is voluntary, and members accept or decline assignments, said Malissa Fritz, communications director for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the state agency that oversees the corps. However, the Minnesota VMA is interested in taking a more active role in the reserve group and has applied for a federal disaster preparedness grant to fund such a role, Vannieuwenhoven said.

"The practical daily experience [that veterinary professionals have] is what makes them so valuable to us,” Fritz said.

Emergencies that Minnesota volunteers would respond to vary from a nuclear power plant radiation leak to an animal disease outbreak or a terrorist attack, said corps volunteer Angela Craig, DVM. “When people evacuate their homes for safety, they often do not want to leave if they cannot take their pets with them. The Reserve Corps strives to have action plans in place to respond to major emergencies and assist people with the care and evacuation of their animal family members.”

Craig participated in the July drill, which simulated a radiation leak. The drill attracted attention from Homeland Security, press groups and a number of different agencies, she said. “It is amazing to work with a group of new people and in the course of a couple hours…[create] an intake facility using an empty building and supplies from three big pallets,” Craig said. “The teamwork was excellent and the dedication to the task at hand [was] phenomenal. …If people were evacuated from an area…they would stop at our animal intake facility before moving on to their shelter…The drill provided us with an opportunity to develop ideas and new ways to perform our duties with great efficiency and efficacy.”