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Safe living in Sonoma

When big animals are in a tight spot—Who ya gonna call?
Safe living in Sonoma
Volunteer engineer Lisa Hardy of Sonoma Valley Fire District is pictured with the Animal Rescue Team trailer donated by The HALTER project.Photo by Melania Mahoney

By Julie Atwood

Most of our “Safe Living” articles focus on disaster preparedness. But this month, we’re looking at the individual emergencies that happen every day.

We all know that firefighters are great at getting cats out of trees and rescuing pets from burning buildings. But did you know that many are trained to rescue equines, cows, and other large animals?

In California, that skill is called Animal Technical Rescue (ATR) by the state fire marshal. In other parts of the country, and globally, it’s also referred to as “Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue.” We’ll use the acronym ATR in this column.

ATR utilizes many of the same techniques and much of the same equipment as “Heavy Rescue” units, but with numerous added features geared to the complexities of rescuing large animals.

ATR training includes studying animal behavior, anatomy, herd movement, basic handling, and safety, safety, safety. The goal of every ATR response is to help the animal(s) out of the predicament and keep all the humans safe.

The principles of the techniques used have been developed by a cadre of veterinarians; engineers; physicists; and rope rescue, water rescue, hazardous materials, vehicle, and animal handling and welfare experts, with input from firefighters from across the U.S. and other countries, including Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and France.

In many communities, firefighters invite veterinarians and local horse and livestock owners to train with them. This helps a response go much more smoothly — everyone understands their roles.

We are fortunate here in Sonoma Valley to have the first (and best-equipped) ATR team in the North Bay. The Animal Emergency Response Team (SVAERT) is a service of the Sonoma Valley Fire District and the Kenwood Fire Department, led by Captain Gary Johnson (who’s also an ATR instructor).

This team was started by The HALTER Project in 2015, with enthusiastic participation from the Glen Ellen and Kenwood Fire Departments. When the Sonoma Valley agencies consolidated, Captain Johnson stepped up to take on the leadership and further development of ATR resources in the Valley and other jurisdictions.

In 2019, The HALTER Project purchased a trailer for the SVAERT and filled it with a complete array of the best large animal rescue equipment. Since 2015, the SVAERT has responded to pleas for help throughout eastern Sonoma County and provided support as a mutual aid resource all around the county.

Several other county departments have developed ATR response units, and that number is growing. That’s great news for horse owners, trail riders, ranchers, and travelers with equines or livestock who find themselves, or their animals, in a bad situation.

How do you request these local super-heroes?

In Sonoma County, you request large animal rescue by first calling 911 and calmly and clearly explaining the situation. The dispatcher will route the request to the nearest resource.

What types of situations require ATR skills?

Most commonly, people ask for help getting a “down” up. This might be a geriatric equine with a bad knee, or a horse “cast” in a stall.

These “rescues” generally need just a couple of strong straps, applied strategically and safely, and some muscle. Horse owners can learn to perform these basic “assists” and, with a little help from a neighbor or worker, help their horses up without special technical help.

More complex and dangerous situations require an integrated team of skilled technicians, veteri-

narians, maybe a heavy equipment operator, and possibly search-and rescue personnel and paramedics to care for any humans involved.

In our area, incidents can include trail riding accidents, a horse stuck in mud, helping a vet “package” a sedated horse for transport, trailer accidents, flood rescue, and animals trapped in wells or septic tanks. (Yes, yuck, and extremely dangerous.)

Knowing how to request help, and what to do while waiting for help to arrive, can have a big impact on the outcome of an animal emergency. The info below is available as a printable PDF, and you can also pick one up at the Kenwood Press.

If you’d like to learn ATR skills yourself, subscribe to The HALTER Project mailing list to receive info about training opportunities. You can also check out the ResQFAST website to inquire about a training.

Stay safe, be ready, and be sure to support our local fire agencies. Request an animal emergency card by sending an email with your contact information to [email protected] org.