Commentary: Before disaster strikes, be sure to have a plan in place

Issue Date: August 21, 2013
By Ria de Grassi
Fires were the most common disasters encountered by livestock producers who responded to a recent survey.
Photos/John Madigan, UC Davis
Firefighters and veterinarians care for sheep affected by a 2006 wildfire in Yolo County. Fires were the most common disasters encountered by livestock producers who responded to a recent survey.
Photos/John Madigan, UC Davis
Ria de Grassi

Everyone is busy. And when you're busy, planning for an emergency tends to drop down—or off—one's priority to-do list. Emergencies typically, and thankfully, tend to be rare occurrences. But when a rare event becomes real, we're all glad that someone made the time to plan and train for it.

Animal emergency preparedness is something everyone—including farmers—should exercise. In California, a broad, coordinated effort is underway to address emergencies affecting all animals, including not just dogs and cats, but also livestock, poultry and farmed fish. Planning includes emergencies such as fires, floods, earthquakes, heat waves, loss of power, a prolonged freeze and more.

To incorporate animals into overall disaster planning and relief efforts, California created the California Animal Response Emergency System. The development of CARES began more than 10 years ago; it is a huge undertaking intended to guide official operational planning for animal emergencies in communities across our state.

Geographically diverse California has more than 38 million people plus an animal population also in the millions. American Veterinary Medical Association polls in 2012 revealed that nearly 6.7 million dogs and 7.1 million cats call California home. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, more than 5.3 million cattle (beef and dairy), 800,000 sheep, goats and hogs, and millions of poultry reside here, too. Add to that an estimated 700,000 horses or more, and we can see that disaster planning is more than a challenge—it's an imperative.

During a disaster, people often insist on remaining with their animals rather than evacuating, which, although noble, can be problematic with potentially tragic consequences for animals and humans alike. If agencies have plans in place to care for animals during disasters—and communicate those plans efficiently during an emergency—people, animals and first responders will all benefit.

State law requires the Governor's Office of Emergency Services to adopt and incorporate the CARES program, developed under the oversight of CDFA, into the standardized emergency management system. This is a smart strategy because it includes planning and mitigation, search and rescue, evacuation, transport, sheltering, veterinary care and recovery, such as reuniting animals with owners. Whether an emergency is confined to a single farm or affects an entire region, effective planning makes response and recovery efforts less distressing and less costly, too. CARES provides resources for the public, businesses, shelters and emergency officials in their local planning efforts for animals in disaster situations.

The California Farm Bureau Federation represents production agriculture on the CARES Steering Committee; other committee members include representatives of state and federal agencies, veterinarians, animal-welfare organizations, the Red Cross and the University of California, Davis. Under a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security, the committee is reworking and updating CARES.

To help inform that process, CFBF, in conjunction with the California Veterinary Medical Association, recently surveyed more than 100 Farm Bureau members and others in animal agriculture. This survey augmented a broader survey conducted earlier, which included input from county Farm Bureaus and members.

Findings from the agriculture-specific survey included:

  • More than 72 percent of respondents have been involved in a non-animal disease emergency.
  • The most common emergencies experienced were fires, extreme weather, floods and drought.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents said they would volunteer to help during an emergency affecting animals.
  • Nearly 72 percent of respondents said they were unaware of any city or county resources available to help them care for animals in an emergency.
  • More than three-quarters of respondents have no written emergency plan to address these types of emergencies.

Several respondents gave insightful comments as to how CARES could better serve agriculture.

"I'd like to know what type of help can be had if we have a problem," wrote one.

Another added, "Emergency personnel directing traffic are not flexible in allowing us to move up and down the roads to rescue our animals. We can get into 'flooded' areas where cars cannot. We know the conditions. They slow down the rescue efforts."

A third respondent stressed the need for emergency agencies to be willing to work with ranchers in evacuating their animals.

"While keeping human safety in mind, they need to be realistic about letting owners into their properties to haul animals out and understand that it may take more than one load to get the task done," the respondent wrote.

Others expressed a need to train emergency responders in animal handling and to seek better communication; one rancher noted that outdated Cal Fire website information meant that real-time information could be obtained only by going to the fireline.

CFBF will share results of this survey with the CARES Steering Committee and will also use the feedback to make sure Farm Bureau members know about the state's emergency management system and how to go about creating a written, farm-specific emergency plan.

The CARES website at provides information on animal emergency management, including planning information to assist individuals and businesses. CARES also maintains a Facebook page.

Take advantage of the resources CARES makes available so that, before disaster strikes—or strikes again—you're fully prepared to care for yourself and your animals.

(Ria de Grassi is director of livestock, animal health and welfare for the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.