Finally, a national veterinary first responder certification

All disasters are local. And so are disaster responses.  


Judy Baum, CVT, a long-time veterinary first responder who works at AAHA-accredited Metzler Veterinary Hospital in Clearwater, Florida, sees action in a lot of hurricanes: “When we show up, we’re usually represented by five or six different state and local [disaster response] agencies under one umbrella of whoever the leading agency is,” Baum said. 

For veterinary first responder Mary Whitlock, DVM, 3,000 miles away in Oregon, it’s usually wildfires. “It’s been one after another all summer long,” she told NEWStat. A 13-year member of the Oregon Veterinary Emergency Response Team and an organizing committee member for the Lane County Animals in Disaster Team/County Animal Response, Whitlock has worked with her share of disaster response agencies, too. 

Hurricanes and wildfires. Two very different disasters that require two very different responses—but in both cases, certain core competencies are required for those responses to go smoothly.  

Yet no standardized program for training veterinarians or veterinary teams in disaster and emergency planning and response currently exists, a situation both Baum and Whitlock would like to see changed. 

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is working to correct that. Last November, the AVMA Board of Directors voted to provide $80,000 for the AVMA to develop a standardized certificate program for veterinary first responders.  

AVMA President Jose Arce, DVM, told NEWStat that the certificate program is based in part on modules developed by the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT) organized in the early 1990s to train veterinarian volunteers to respond to natural disasters: “While this training was considered state of the art at the time, it was never standardized across the country,” Arce said. When the VMAT teams were decommissioned in 2017, the AVMA Committee on Disasters and Emergency Issues (CDEI) was tasked with finding a way to keep AVMA involved in the education of veterinarians interested in responding to disasters involving animals. 

To that end, the AVMA held the first of a series of summits about veterinary disaster education in 2018. Participants included CDEI volunteers, representatives from seven veterinary schools active in teaching disaster courses, and representatives from several national animal response organizations, such as the National Alliance of State Animal and Agricultural Emergency Programs (NASAAEP), among others.  

Those participants evaluated the current state of veterinary disaster training and discussed what was being taught by the various organizations represented as well as how veterinary disaster training could best benefit from a united effort.  Arce said they all agreed that, instead of creating standardized training modules, “a standard set of core competencies would allow all teaching institutions and organizations to teach to their strengths while still covering essential competencies.”  

Based on input from participants, the AVMA identified nearly three dozen competencies necessary for certification—ranging from resource procurement to the psychology of disaster—in what would be the nation’s first standardized training program for veterinary disaster and emergency planning and response. 

Arce stressed that the AVMA Veterinary First Responder Certificate program is a voluntary certification: “Response organizations may choose to use the AVMA certificate as one method of credentialing their responders.” He said both NASAAEP and the United State Animal Health Association have officially endorsed the creation of the certificate program. 

The AVMA Committee on Disaster and Emergency Issues (CDEI) finalized the list of competencies this summer. The CDEI is currently accepting submissions from organizations to have their training courses approved for teaching these competencies. 

Arce said the certification would not require any additional training (such as in emergency medicine) because the core competencies were developed as an entry-level certification: “[T]he competencies should be the minimum competencies that an individual should possess before being actively involved in a response.” 

Initially, the AVMA certificate will be rolled out to veterinary students and veterinarians, but the AVMA isn’t forgetting the rest of the veterinary team: “We understand that veterinary technicians are a crucial player in disaster response and plan to begin work on evaluating the appropriateness of the core competencies for veterinary technicians,” Arce said. The AVMA hopes to roll out a separate program for techs within one to two years.  

Whitlock told NEWStat that she’s very impressed with the AVMA’s list of  core competencies: “All of those are exactly what we need. They’re basically what we’ve been discussing on the state and county level.”  

She’s particularly excited about the AVMA’s emphasis on the psychology of disaster: “Just how the disaster impacts everyone involved in that disaster, from evacuees to pet owners, and including the first responders,” she said. “That’s something that helps you as a responder to do a better job.” 

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