Bring it on: UF VETS team rolls out new 44-foot disaster response vehicle

UF VETS trailer.
Brandi Phillips and Dr. Larry Garcia, members of the UF VETS team, with the new vehicle. (Photo by Jesse Jones)

By Sarah Carey

Just in time for this year’s hurricane season, the University of Florida Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service, or UF VETS, has a new weapon in its arsenal for disaster response — a 44-foot mobile command and infrastructure support truck and trailer, funded by a $150,000 grant from the Banfield Foundation and PetSmart Charities.

“We will now be able to fully support our team in the field when we deploy, so that we’re not potentially taking away from local resources,” said Larry Garcia, D.V.M., the Maddie’s Clinical Assistant Professor of Shelter Medicine at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, and the UF VETS team’s medical director.

The trailer contains 10 bunks that fold up and out of the way to transport medical carts, cabinets, tents and other related gear to establish a treatment area for animals.

“This impressive new vehicle offers full sustainability with bunks and baths, everything we need,” Garcia added. “We can live there, shower there and do everything we need there — including managing communications with other agencies — when responding in a disaster situation. So, no hotels, no relying on other groups for bunk trailers or tents.”

Full autonomy also will enable the UF VETS team to perform longer-term service when deployed. The vehicle reduces the need for additional trucks and trailers to haul gear and supplies.

Until now, a medical surgery trailer provided by PetSmart Charities has been the center of the team’s resources. When not being used by the UF VETS team, the vehicle’s primary role has been to support the college’s Veterinary Community Outreach Program, which provides spay-neuter services to rural municipal shelters in North Florida that have limited access to veterinary care.

The team will now be able to deploy with either or both vehicles as needed.

Kim Van Syoc, executive director of the Banfield Foundation, said the nonprofit’s decision to help fund the new rig at UF was consistent with the organization’s commitment to ensuring all pets have access to veterinary care, regardless of their circumstances — especially during disasters, when animals are most vulnerable.

“Disaster relief is a key component of the Banfield Foundation, and we are humbled to support the important work of first responders as they offer help and hope to communities in need,” she said. “Veterinary professionals who respond during natural disasters are truly inspiring. We hope this new vehicle improves not only the response process, but also the lives of those doing the lifesaving work.”

The Banfield Foundation was created in 2015 by Banfield Pet Hospital, which operates more than 1,000 veterinary hospitals across the country. Through its grant programs, the foundation supports nonprofit organizations that provide veterinary assistance, temporary shelter and disaster relief to vulnerable pets.

As the leading funder of animal welfare efforts in North America, PetSmart Charities collaborates with local organizations to support pets and people through initiatives such as emergency relief. PetSmart Charities has granted over $15.7 million to organizations across the U.S. and Canada that assist pets impacted by natural disasters.

“When natural disasters strike, we are committed to supporting those on the front lines, who are the lifeblood of recovery efforts,” said Deborah Turcott, acting president of PetSmart Charities. “We have had a long-standing relationship with the UF College of Veterinary Medicine to support disaster relief efforts across the Southeast. We have confidence this vehicle will enhance UF VETS’s capacity to address the varied needs of pets and the people who love them in impacted areas.”

UF VETS is one of the oldest and largest animal disaster response teams in the country. It has responded to hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and animal-hoarding situations and is a core resource for the Florida State Agricultural Response Team, part of the state veterinarian’s office in the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services.

The team performs technical rescues — emergency response involving the use of specialized tools and techniques for complex situations that present unique hazards for the animal and responders — and provides medical care for large and small animals, logistical support to veterinary clinics and other response teams, as well as initial assessments of impacted areas.

UF VETS includes veterinary medical students in its training and preparedness exercises, providing them with real-life experiences such as when the team deployed to Key West in 2017 after Hurricane Irma struck that part of the state.

And the team doesn’t just rescue pets that have, say, fallen into sinkholes or are stranded by floodwaters.

“One of the most rewarding things we have done is to play a role in reuniting lost animals with their owners,’’ said Brandi Phillips, director of the technical rescue branch of UF VETS. “In some cases, we’ve been able to identify what type of medication an animal needs, and, working through our network of veterinarians and our own supplies, been able to find and deliver that medication to help the animal.”