News from the CRC

Managing animals in emergencies

By Mel Taylor, Megan McCarthy and Jenny Bigelow. This article first appeared in Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia.

Despite 63 percent of Australian households owning pets — and 90 percent of owners considering pets as family members — they are still one of the most overlooked elements of household emergency preparedness.

The lack of planning for pets and animals in emergencies can endanger the lives of owners, their animals and emergency services personnel. Owners, mindful of the complexity in moving animals, may delay their response and leave it too late to evacuate — or decide not to evacuate at all. Much of the research into animal emergency management has emerged from the US after the wide-ranging animal-related challenges associated with Hurricane Katrina. US experts Sebastian Heath (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and Robert Linnabary (retired from University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine), found that “there is no other factor contributing as much to human evacuation failure in disasters that is under the control of emergency management when a threat is imminent as pet ownership”.

In Australia, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC project Managing Animals in Disasters has been addressing the lack of Australian research by studying the disaster experiences of animal owners and responders, identifying challenges for emergency service agencies, and identifying best-practice approaches.

To explore the issues of pet and animal evacuations in a bushfire-prone area of NSW, the project teamed with a newly formed community-led group called the Blue Mountains Animal Ready Community (Blue ARC).

The Blue Mountains covers an area of around 1,436 square kilometres, with a large part of the area dedicated to the Blue Mountains National Park, alongside a population of approximately 75,000. It is also one of the most bushfire-prone areas in the world. In October 2013, the Blue Mountains experienced the worst bushfires the area has ever seen.

The Blue ARC research project aims to identify routes for engagement with, and within, communities to promote emergency planning and preparedness for owners and their animals, and reinforce a community culture of shared responsibility.

To gauge current levels of preparedness for animals — and local issues related to this — residents were surveyed about their experiences and needs, including those who had been affected by the October 2013 fires.

The online survey was completed by 386 people and identified a generally poor level of preparedness, with 57 percent of the sample overall having planned for their animals. Most of this planning, however, was low level, such as thinking about and discussing what to do in an emergency. Only 20 percent of respondents felt ‘very prepared’ and reported that they had a written or well-rehearsed emergency plan. Less than half knew with certainty where they would take their animals if they had to evacuate, and only 20 percent had asked a neighbour, nearby friend or family member if they would help evacuate their animals in their absence. As more than 50 percent of employed residents in the Blue Mountains commute to work away from the mountains, having this backup support is extremely important.

The survey found a strong dependency on emergency service agencies, with 62 percent of respondents indicating that they would turn to emergency service agencies for information to enable them to prepare and plan for their animals. Respondents also reported that they would look to local veterinarians (58%), RSPCA (40%), social media (46%) or family and friends (44%) to provide information.

Respondents who had been involved in previous emergencies with their animals provided unique perspectives on planning, evacuation and recovery. One resident who evacuated during the October 2013 bushfires reported: “Worrying about the animals was one of the most stressful parts of the entire process for me.”

During an emergency situation, a lack of preparedness can quickly become time-consuming and stressful, respondents noted. One respondent recalled during an evacuation: “We could not access two cat carriers as they were in storage in the garage. Police escorted us out and we had to leave immediately so we just put [the] cats in the car.”

Having multiple animals, multiple species of animals, or animals with health or behavioural issues can exacerbate the stress, and make evacuation more difficult. Additionally, the loss of pets in a disaster can significantly affect an owner’s recovery and resilience to future shocks.

This project has identified issues that animal owners have come across in a range of contexts and emergency events, and the concerns and problems faced in preparedness, response and recovery. As a result, it has provided emergency services and other stakeholders with information on priority community issues that can be addressed for the greatest gains in public and responder safety. Groups from the emergency services, as well as the local council, non-governmental organisations, veterinary practices and neighbourhood centres have been engaged. The mapping of animal ownership, and availability of local veterinary services and animal boarding facilities, will enable community members to plan more effectively. The ‘community-to-community’ activities of Blue ARC ensure that local solutions to identified problems are communicated back to the community.

The research with Blue ARC will be further developed to produce a community guide to establishing an animal ready community. The guide will promote emergency preparedness through a focus on animals, and will include the networks and collaborations required, how to identify the needs of local animal owners, and suggestions for community activities. The resource pack associated with the guide will include materials developed as part of the current project, including a question bank for surveys, templates for posters and fact sheets, and plans for low-cost community training.

Developing an animal ready community provides extra capacity and reach for emergency services agencies. Such groups, with their broader community networks, can also harness additional community capacity—including access to those with animal-specific handling skills. It is vitally important to develop these groups in at-risk areas to ensure people have prepared and planned for their animals, and can therefore evacuate safely.

Find out more about this research at:

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Index of Editions

Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International day for Disaster Reduction, highlights our research in incident management development, provides a case study comparing the Houston floods to Sydney and our researchers ask if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.
Community resilience in the remote north, how NSW RFS used research to change their approach to engagement around bushfire survival planning, and case studies on CRC research impact.