Disaster Planning is for Veterinary Hospitals, too!


Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. How has your team prepared?

“Quick, there’s a fire, call 9-1-1!” The very thought of a disaster within your veterinary hospital must bring shivers to your spine. Those who have experienced it wish they never had and those who prepared for it are grateful they did!

The Institute for Business and Home Safety (www.disastersafety.org) estimates that 25 percent of companies are unable to reopen after a major disaster. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes, and only then do most businesses consider the importance of disaster planning and emergency preparedness.

The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) requires small businesses to create a fire prevention and emergency response plan. This includes veterinary hospitals! Phil Seibert, CVT, owner of SafetyVet, recommends taking the time to write out your plan, increasing communications within the team and avoiding misunderstandings. He advises, “When it comes to preparing for emergencies, the best advice is to leave all rescue duties to the professionals and establish a triage and treatment area for the animals once they are evacuated.” View his article Examine your veterinary practice evacuation plan (www.dvm360.com) for more information.

Veterinary hospitals belonging to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) are encouraged to create a plan; however, it is not mandatory. Within their accreditation service is assistance with an evacuation plan. If you are an AAHA member, convince your management it is time to move forward on drills and emergency preparedness. “We were probably more prepared for a tree falling on the building or being flooded,” states Dr. Beres after Hurricane Irene hit Connecticut. ”Just having a simple loss of electricity doesn’t seem all that complicated until you’re without it for several days. Being an AAHA hospital, we had a disaster plan. But one thing I learned from this experience is it’s hard to plan for everything.”

Nadja Torling, current practice manager of client relations at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital, was working at a boarding kennel when a fire broke out in the kitchen and laundry area. She was the first to arrive on New Year’s Day when she smelled a hint of smoke. As she entered the kitchen area, she was horrified to find it filled with smoke and a foot of water on the floor. At that moment, a second employee walked up and Nadja yelled to her co-worker, “Call 9-1-1!”

As the day unfolded, it was apparent their emergency training had paid off. Tragically, three dogs were lost in the fire. However, the team pulled together beautifully and performed well under the circumstances. The firefighters quickly evacuated the dogs. During previous training sessions, the employees were concerned if they could leave the building without saving the animals. It is the policy of the boarding facility to evacuate the people first and allow the trained firefighters to do their job. Fortunately, the employees remained calm and no team members were injured in the incident. Everyone let the professionals fight the fire and evacuate the dogs, the way they had trained in their drills.

Torling says, “It is important to continuously review protocols to keep them current and have drills where you physically have to go through the motions. If you’ve done it in training, it’s a lot easier to know what to do when there’s an actual emergency.”

You may seem overwhelmed with the idea of creating a disaster plan. Where do you begin? How do you identify a Safety Coordinator? Why create a drill? Let’s take this in small, bite-sized pieces and make the task less daunting.

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes and in all areas of the world. Following is a list of possible disasters and websites to help you determine your risk:

  • Dam Failure
  • Earthquake
  • Fire or Wildfire
  • Flood
  • Hazardous Material
  • Heat
  • Hurricane
  • Landslide
  • Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
  • Terrorism
  • Thunderstorm
  • Tornado
  • Volcano
  • Wildfire
  • Winter Storm

By viewing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) site, you can see what disasters have occurred in the past by state (www.fema.gov/news/disasters_state.fema?id=49) and what can potentially happen in the future (www.fema.gov/hazard/map/index.shtm). What is your risk? What emergencies will your team train for?

Consider downloading and viewing with your team an informative PowerPoint presentation offered by OSHA, Emergency Response (listed in resources). The presentation outlines Top Ten Reasons Emergency Response Plans Fail (just as important to know to identify the ways to succeed). At the top of the failure list: no upper management support. There must be buy-in from veterinarians, managers and supervisors. Benefits of emergency planning include: safety for employees, clients, and animals (it is as simple as that), and business sustainability (equally important).

Following is a list of required elements of an Emergency Plan as designed by OSHA:

  1. Pre-Emergency Planning
  2. Personnel Roles, Lines of Authority, and Communication
  3. Emergency Recognition/Prevention
  4. Emergency Alerting/Response Procedures
  5. Notification
  6. Evaluation of Situation
  7. Rescue/Response Action

Now that you have determined your risk and identified the benefits of disaster planning, it is time to create a written plan. “Wheels” are already created; you don’t have to start from scratch! The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a well-written document specifically designed for veterinary hospitals that can be found on their website. You may download it for your hospital’s use, located at


In the five-page document, you will find it is essential that a veterinary practice have a plan that includes:

  1. Emergency relocation of animals
  2. Medical record back up
  3. Continuity of operations
  4. Security
  5. General emergency planning
  6. Fire prevention
  7. Insurance and legal issues

Another great resource can be found within the pages of the Fall 2008 AVMA PLIT (Professional Liability Insurance Trust) Safety Bulletin. Step one of their Emergency Action Planning is to assemble your planning team depending upon the size of your veterinary hospital. Step four of their plan includes periodically practicing and updating the plan. Use practice drills to train the team and learn from each drill experience. All past archived Safety Bulletins can be found on their site at www.avmaplit.com.

Now that you have identified a Disaster Coordinator, viewed the OSHA PowerPoint, created your written plan, and located an emergency gathering place for your team, it is time to design a DRILL. Remember to update information in your Employee Handbook and to document your training for OSHA requirements.

As stated earlier, the best advice after identifying a disaster is to allow the professionals to take care of the evacuation of animals. “Team safety is PRIORITY!” Stephanie Slahor, PhD, JD, wrote in Veterinary Economics, “Safeguard team safety.” She suggests veterinary hospitals create and hold a fire drill, discussing evacuation routes and making sure everyone knows how to use the panic alarm. The drill includes information on who makes the decision to evacuate. She reminds everyone to include supplies of water, flashlights, and first-aid kit.

Prior to performing a drill, while in a team meeting, inform all employees of Emergency Guidelines (already incorporated in your Employee Handbook–in a perfect world), expectations, and possible scenarios. Verbally walk them through an emergency situation. Consider a “Lunch and Learn” where a fireman or police officer will discuss emergency evacuations and safety.

Your fire drill may include the following components in a mock physical experience:

“Quick, there’s a fire!” NOW WHAT?

  1. Call 9-1-1 (establish relationships with local fire departments and police)
  2. Create a map of the facility with exit routes, the emergency gathering place, and locations of fire extinguishers
  3. Generate a list of all employees, patients, and client contacts of the day (difficult if no electricity)
  4. Set up a triage treatment area for evacuated animals
  5. Have access to enough leashes and carriers
  6. Identify a prearranged, temporary facility (establish relationships with nearby veterinary hospitals and boarding facilities in case of an emergency)
  7. Have a computer back up, medical records, flashlights, batteries, and electrical generator with gas to allow for days of usage
  8. Have access to medical supplies and delivery

When designing your drill, consider the event weeks in advance and prepare for lighter appointment scheduling, generate a sign stating your team is in training, turn over the phones to a message machine, and allow for debriefing of the drill. Give yourself at least 2-3 hours for the mock disaster to unfold. The Disaster Coordinator’s task may take weeks to properly achieve. Stuffed animals may be used in the drill to facilitate evacuation and triage “realness.” Use your imagination, consider as many glitches that may occur and toss the scenario out to your team. Yes, debriefing is crucial. Critique the drill:

  1. What did we learn?
  2. How was overall communications?
  3. What went well?
  4. What needs improvement?
  5. When will we do this type of a drill again?

Here is yet one more document worth reviewing and incorporating into your resources, Disaster Planning, Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity written by Non Profit Coordinating Committee of New York. http://www.npccny.org/info/disaster_plan.htm. FANTASTIC RESOURCE. It is as simple as downloading a copy. The site states,  “This document is a guideline that offers the points an organization needs to think about in order to prepare its own disaster recovery plan so that, should an interruption occur, it is able to resume operations. You can take this document and use it as you wish: cut and paste those sections that are applicable, expand where needed. Assign a crew to complete the various sections, take a copy home, store it on your intranet, and give copies to key personnel: the board chair, the secretary, or another appropriate board member.”

Your local and state professional associations may be great resources for you as well. Your veterinary medical association or veterinary technician association may offer assistance in case of an emergency. Networking with professional organizations may be crucial to disaster recovery and emergency planning. In Colorado, the Veterinary Medical Foundation oversees training of County Animal Response Teams (CART). The Colorado Association of Certified Veterinary Technicians has an Emergency Management Sub-Committee focusing on how technicians can educate clients regarding emergency preparedness of pets and livestock during a wellness exam. Your challenge is to engage and network with your local, state, and national organizations in the preparation of disaster planning.

National organizations include (although not limited to) the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA), National Veterinary Response Team (NVRT), and AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team (VMAT). A list of advanced training can be found on the AVMA site (http://www.avma.org/disaster/training.asp).

In conclusion, veterinary technicians and health care team members are encouraged to step up, speak with management, and create a disaster plan to include written documentation and periodic training drills. The safety of the team, clients, pets, and business depend upon it!


Institute for Business and Home Safety, www.disastersafety.org

OSHA, www.osha.gov

Examine your veterinary practice evacuation plan

Heroes need not apply. In an emergency evacuation, your employees should focus on saving themselves.

Veterinary Economics, Phil Seibert, CVT, April 1, 2010, http://veterinarybusiness.dvm360.com/vetec/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=665266

American Animal Hospital Association, www.aahnet.org

I survived a kennel fire

This is the true story of how one veterinary boarding kennel team learned the importance of fire-safety training.

FiIRSTLINE, Jan 27th, 2011, Liz Marsh, Senior Editor, http://veterinaryteam.dvm360.com/firstline/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=704686

What Hurricane Rita taught us

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts 2006 will be another active hurricane season. Is your practice prepared for a disaster?

FIRSTLINE, August 1st, 2006, Portia Steward, http://veterinaryteam.dvm360.com/firstline/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=358668

Practices take a hit from ice storm, NEWStat, AAHA, February 4th, 2009, Volume 7 Issue 03, http://trends.aahanet.org/NEWStatArticle.aspx?key=0501b72b-f910-46f8-9448-b58f925ac171&id=NSV7I3

Despite Weekend Storms, East Coast Practices Still Trying to Recover from Hurricane Irene, NEWStat, AAHA, September 7th, 2011, Volume 9 Issue 33, http://trends.aahanet.org/NEWStatArticle.aspx?key=f4f506c7-410f-467a-9c0a-290672eeae8c&id=NSV9I33

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),

Disasters by state http://www.fema.gov/news/disasters_state.fema?id=49

Determine your risk http://www.fema.gov/hazard/map/index.shtm


How small businesses can prepare for disaster, PSPrint Blog


SafetyVet, http://www.safetyvet.com/_derived/nortbots.htm

OSHA Power Point, Emergency Response; http://www.osha.gov/dte/grant_materials/fy05/46c5-ht16/hazwoper_emergency_response.ppt

Safeguard team safety, July 1st, 2005, Stephanie Slahor, PhD, JD, Veterinary Economics,


AVMAPLIT Safety Bulletin, Emergency Action Planning, Volume 16 No 4, Fall 2008


AVMA Disaster Planning for Veterinary Hospitals, http://www.avma.org/disaster/vet_practices_brochure.pdf

Tip of the Day, AAHA, Write a Disaster Plan, http://trends.aahanet.org/

Disaster Planning, Emergency Preparedness & Business Continuity, Non Profit Coordinating Committee of New York. http://www.npccny.org/info/disaster_plan.htm

National Veterinary Response Team,


AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Team, www.avma.org/vmat

AVMA Animal Disaster Plans, Website showing State animal disaster plans available


AVMA Determine your risk http://www.fema.gov/hazard/map/index.shtm

AVMA advanced disaster training site (http://www.avma.org/disaster/training.asp).


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One Response to Disaster Planning is for Veterinary Hospitals, too!

  1. Edison Eckersley says:

    If you’ve been promoted to manager and you’re new to business administration, disaster recovery is probably the first tasks you must start knowing. This is particularly important (and vital) if you’re in a place where natural disasters like storms and floods occur regularly..`

    View the most recent short article on our personal web page

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