Large Animal Emergency Rescue Debuts’ for Maine Firefighters

Enfield Firefighter Wesley Stonier couldn’t believe he was assigned his third choice. He was hoping to spray water, fight some flames, or learn how to use hydraulic tools to pry open a car. Instead, he arrived at Cumberland County Fire Attack School to find out he’d be handling horses all day. His disappointment was evident. But by the end of the day he’d realized the value of the course. He asked when the next level of training would be taking place, and to please make sure he was notified.

Maine’s Large Animal Emergency Rescue (LAER) Awareness is the first of its kind in the United States. After attending a three-day technical large animal rescue course in Massachusetts last spring, three firefighters from Poland and Buckfield realized the importance of the training, but also knew most firefighters didn’t have three days to devote to such an intensive program. The course was also expensive due to travel and lodging along with over $300 in registration fees per firefighter. Vicki Schmidt, a Maine State Fire Instructor, and avid horse person, decided to write a basic course for entry level training. “For LAER there are many basic techniques and lots of equipment on first responder apparatus that can help make injured animals more comfortable, aid in their rescue, as well as keep firefighters safe. It’s all on giving first responders the basic knowledge on how to handle the animal in distress and learning the skills that help keep the animal and responders safe”.

Though many Department Chiefs and firefighters might hesitate to respond to a call of an animal trapped in mud, on ice, or through a barn floor, fire departments are quickly becoming what is called in the industry as “all hazard” responders. Vicki goes onto explain, “Animal incidents are people incidents. If first responders don’t respond then a caring citizen is going to try to help. In the end, the emergency personnel will have to be there anyways to rescue the people, who will probably get very injured trying to help the animal”.

LAER Awareness teaches firefighters to include the animal component in their first arrival reports and scene set up. As with structure fires, auto accidents, and virtually all emergency incidents, how the scene is first set up determines how efficiently the incident will be mitigated. “The first 5 minutes dictates the rest of the call. If a call comes and we're told animals are involved, that’s great. We can start planning immediately for their needs as were responding. If we arrive on scene and see the accident involves an overturned stock trailer, simple things like having other arriving units turn off their sirens, will help reduce anxiety to the animals, and keep the scene safer for responders already on scene”.

Vicki spent the last year conditioning two of her horses to deal with the new training for first responders. A two-year old Shire gelding, named RIT Ready, and a two-year old Shire/Arabian cross named Cirrus debuted at the fire school. Responders were shown how to catch a loose horse, and correctly apply a variety of halters, including an emergency halter made from “rescue rope”, a common rope carried by all firefighters. The course also included setting up temporary containment areas, and explained techniques for corralling animals with ladders. Blind folding and tying animals with quick release knots to secure objects were other skills learned and practiced. The course teaches along the “go or no go” rule. There may be times when the risk is too great. Learning to determine those signs and work within the command system are vital to successful operations.

Probably one of the most valuable take-home messages for the class was “hooves are not handles”. There is story after story of how a horse or cow was rescued but later had to be destroyed due to such severe injury to their legs or neck from being dragged incorrectly. Learning how to apply and use straps and webbing to effectively drag a large animal was one highlight for students in the class. Students also attached the slings to a lift and learned how to operate the snap shackles, which release the animal after its on secure ground.

An interesting part of the class, and one that pertains to many rescue incidents, not just large animals, was learning how to use a mud rescue kit. The kit is designed using the same self-contained-breathing-apparatus (SCBA) tanks that firefighters use for air. A simple system of manifolds, gages, and air hoses along with 5 foot sections of PVC pipe are used to pump air into the mud, thus breaking the surface tension of the mud on whatever is trapped. In the LAER Awareness class, students trapped themselves up to their knees in mud, and were "rescued" by other responders using the kit.

First responders taking the new LAER Awareness class also learned how to take a set of vitals for a horse. Safety for the responder is paramount, but if the scene is set up correctly and animals are calm enough to cooperate, a set of vitals can be relayed to a vet by phone or, better yet, a vet en-route. With large animal veterinarians at a premium in Maine, we can’t always guarantee one will be available on a timely basis. No special equipment is needed for basic vitals for animals, its just knowing the techniques. Students also learned how to help deal with hypothermia, or overheating problems that animals might be subject to during an extended incident.

Technical rescue experts from Poland Fire Rescue and Andover Fire Department helped design parts of the course, and Safe Approach, Inc, a nationally recognized rescue equipment company out of Poland, Maine was also an important component to the class. Safe Approach Inc stitched old fire hosing to make the rescue slings, one of the best materials for large animal rescue. “The best part about this class is everyone involved brought some special skill to the course, and we worked as team to put it all together.” Veterinarians reviewed the materials, and the State of Maine Animal Response Team ( approved the curriculum. As the LAER program evolves, the instructors hope to expand it to other Fire Attack Schools and statewide responder training programs. An operations level, which will involve training to right a stock trailer that has tipped on its side, is scheduled to be ready for the fall of this year.

For more information or to host a Large Animal Emergency Training program in your area contact Vicki Schmidt at Troika Drafts. 207-966-2280 or email:

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