Injuries and illnesses among human remains detection–certified search-and-recovery dogs deployed to northern California in response to the Camp Fire wildfire of November 2018

Lori E. Gordon 1Massachusetts Task Force 1 National Urban Search and Rescue Response Team, 43 Airport Rd, Beverly, MA 01915.

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Ben Ho 2California Office of Emergency Services Law Enforcement Division, Canine Coordinator, 3650 Schriever Ave, Mather, CA 95655 (Ho).

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE

To document injuries and illnesses incurred by search-and-recovery (S&R) dogs deployed to northern California in response to the Camp Fire wildfire of November 2018 and identify fire scene–specific hazards.

ANIMALS

30 human remains detection–certified S&R dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene.

PROCEDURES

Handlers of the S&R dogs completed a survey after deployment. Data on illnesses and injuries incurred by the dogs during deployment were summarized, incidence rates were calculated, and fire scene hazards were identified.

RESULTS

Dogs were deployed for 161 days in total, representing 121 operational search shifts that totalled 931 hours. Injuries and illnesses (ie, medical issues) were reported for 20 (67%) dogs. Wounds (lacerations and abrasions) were the most common injury, occurring in 13 (43%) dogs for an incidence rate of 34.4 wounds/1,000 h worked. The most common illness-related issues were weight loss and lethargy or fatigue, each reported for 3 (10%) dogs for an incidence rate of 3.2 events/1,000 h worked. Total incidence rate for all medical issue events was 67.7 events/1,000 h worked. Specific to the Camp Fire scene were respiratory hazards of carcinogenic woodland smoke, aerosolized dry ash, and poison oak fumes; and contact hazards of burning ground or roots, unstable sewer covers, prescription medications, unexploded ammunition, congealed vehicle battery acid, and antifreeze, all hidden under layers of ash.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE

Lacerations, abrasions, weight loss, and lethargy or fatigue were common among the S&R dogs, and ash covering fire scene–specific hazards likely contributed. In addition to safety concerns common to all team personnel, hazards specific to S&R dogs in a postfire environment should be emphasized during hazmat and safety briefings, especially to handlers, search team managers, and medical personnel.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE

To document injuries and illnesses incurred by search-and-recovery (S&R) dogs deployed to northern California in response to the Camp Fire wildfire of November 2018 and identify fire scene–specific hazards.

ANIMALS

30 human remains detection–certified S&R dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene.

PROCEDURES

Handlers of the S&R dogs completed a survey after deployment. Data on illnesses and injuries incurred by the dogs during deployment were summarized, incidence rates were calculated, and fire scene hazards were identified.

RESULTS

Dogs were deployed for 161 days in total, representing 121 operational search shifts that totalled 931 hours. Injuries and illnesses (ie, medical issues) were reported for 20 (67%) dogs. Wounds (lacerations and abrasions) were the most common injury, occurring in 13 (43%) dogs for an incidence rate of 34.4 wounds/1,000 h worked. The most common illness-related issues were weight loss and lethargy or fatigue, each reported for 3 (10%) dogs for an incidence rate of 3.2 events/1,000 h worked. Total incidence rate for all medical issue events was 67.7 events/1,000 h worked. Specific to the Camp Fire scene were respiratory hazards of carcinogenic woodland smoke, aerosolized dry ash, and poison oak fumes; and contact hazards of burning ground or roots, unstable sewer covers, prescription medications, unexploded ammunition, congealed vehicle battery acid, and antifreeze, all hidden under layers of ash.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE

Lacerations, abrasions, weight loss, and lethargy or fatigue were common among the S&R dogs, and ash covering fire scene–specific hazards likely contributed. In addition to safety concerns common to all team personnel, hazards specific to S&R dogs in a postfire environment should be emphasized during hazmat and safety briefings, especially to handlers, search team managers, and medical personnel.

Documentation of illness and injury incurred by S&R and search-and-rescue dogs during and after deployment1–9 provides data on medical issues and insight as to the nature of the risks involved for such dogs during operations. The information can be used to improve the safety of these dogs before, during, and after their deployment.

To the authors’ knowledge, only 1 report9 exists of medical issues incurred by S&R dogs deployed to a wildfire disaster site. Six HRD-certified S&R dogs searched 24 of 53 square miles destroyed in 2012 by a fire in Bastrop County, Tex. These dogs worked for 6 to 8 hours a day over 5 days in high heat conditions. Five of the 6 dogs developed medical issues, including minor injuries (n = 4) and severe hyperthermia and dehydration (1). During the Camp Fire, Calif, wildfire of November 8 to 25, 2018, 30 HRD dogs were deployed, over a larger area and for a longer period, in varied weather conditions. The purpose of the study reported here was to increase the amount of data available describing the types and incidence of medical issues among S&R dogs deployed to a postfire environment by documenting the injuries and illnesses incurred by S&R dogs deployed to the scene of the Camp Fire wildfire and to compare findings with those in published reports1–9 from 6 previous deployments. We also sought to document previously unreported environmental hazards, safety concerns, weather fluctuations, decontamination challenges, illnesses, and injuries specific to S&R dogs deployed to a postfire environment.

Materials and Methods

Background

Named after its place of origin, the Camp Fire wildfire started at sunrise on Thursday, November 8, 2018, and was first reported at 6:33 am Pacific Standard Time near Pulga, Calif, near Camp Creek Road in Butte County, Calif. The fire reached 100% containment after 17 days on November 25, 2018.10 During the first week in November 2018, red-flag conditions11 (ie, ideal wildland fire combustion and rapid spread) existed throughout California, with high winds and low humidity. Once the Camp Fire began, extreme fire behavior fanned by 50-mph winds created an unprecedented firestorm. Although the fire most noticeably involved the entire town of Paradise, 6 other surrounding communities (Magalia, Centerville, Concow, Pulga, Butte Creek, and Yankee Hill) were also devastated, resulting in a fire zone of 240 square miles, an area larger than the city of Chicago. The environmental impact was immediately felt throughout northern California, with dense smoke pollution spreading as far down as the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento areas, causing multiple public school closures owing to the extreme public health dangers. Within the fire zone, environmental contaminants, including asbestos, heavy metals, dioxins, and incinerated commercial and household hazardous materials, were everywhere. In particular, hundreds of burned-out vehicles with spilled antifreeze, battery acid, and volatile organic compounds were present.12

In the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the town of Paradise and surrounding communities during the Camp Fire, resources to account for > 1,000 reported missing and deceased victims were mobilized even as the fire perimeter continued to burn out of control. The California OES coordinates response efforts and provides mutual aid assistance throughout the state. The operations of search, rescue, and recovery fall under the Law Enforcement Division. Assets include volunteer and uniformed personnel, including CSTs (ie, dogs and their handlers) trained in S&R and certified in HRD under appendix B of the California OES Search and Rescue Mutual Aid Guidelines. Additionally, the California OES has a Fire Division that coordinates mutual aid assets including US&R task forces consisting of 12 regional task forces and 8 FEMA national task forces. The initial call-out for volunteer S&R CSTs involved all 35 qualified teams within the state, who worked in rotational deployments during the first week. By the second week, these assets were supplemented by additional HRD-certified CSTs from the regional and national US&R task forces and the state of Oregon.12

Data collection

A surveya was sent via email to all California-based volunteer and county handlers of HRD-certified CSTs 2 days before the last team demobilized and to the regional and national task force handlers within 7 days after the last team demobilized. One handler had been deployed with 2 dogs and was requested to complete 1 survey/dog. Data collected via the questionnaire included deployment experience of the handler, signalment and HRD search experience of the dog, duration of deployment, staging areas to await mission assignments, transportation to and from staging and search sites, overnight billeting, hazmat and safety concerns briefing, number of CST shifts and length of each shift, canine decontamination frequency and protocol used, medical care received by the dog, and any injury or illnesses (ie, medical issues) that the dog experienced during deployment, including treatment and resolution of each medical issue. All returned surveys were fully complete and used in the study.

To determine how the collected data for this population of dogs compared with previously reported data for other S&R and search-and-rescue dogs deployed in response to other disasters, data were collected and summarized pertaining to the State Route 530 landslide in Oso, Wash, in 20148; the aforementioned wildfire in Bastrop County, Tex, in 20129; the earthquake in Haiti in 20107; the WTC terrorist attacks in 20012,6; and the OKC bombing in 1995.1 The number of hours worked at the Oklahoma bombing site was determined on the basis of shift length typical for FEMA and police working dogs13–15 and, for the Bastrop County wildfire, was determined by contacting the author of the related report9 for specific number of hours worked.b

Statistical analysis

Summary statistics (mean, median, and range) were calculated. Values for IRMIE and IRSDM were calculated on the basis of 1,000 hours worked for the dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene and for the dogs deployed to the scenes of the other listed disasters. In calculations of IRMIE and for consistency with previous reports,1,2,6–8 a medical issue event was defined as 1 reported instance of a particular medical issue occurring during deployment. For example, if a dog was reported to have had diarrhea 3 times or had 2 lacerations (regardless of whether the lacerations were simultaneously acquired) during deployment, then this was counted as 3 and 2 medical issue events, respectively. The numerator in the calculation therefore equalled the total number of a given type of medical issue event (issue-specific IRMIE) or of all medical issue events (total IRMIE). In calculations of IRSDM, a dog was counted in the numerator if it had a given (issue-specific IRSDM) or any (total IRSDM) medical issue at least once during deployment. In both types of incidence rate calculations, the denominator was the total number of hours worked by all dogs.

Results

Survey

Surveys were sent to 44 handlers of 45 HRD dogs (1 handler deployed with 2 dogs). Completed surveys were returned by 29 handlers of 30 dogs, representing 67% (30/45) of all CSTs (the handler with 2 dogs was counted as 2 CSTs).

Handler experience

The 29 dog handlers had a total of 362 years of experience with CSTs among them: 14 (48%) had 1 to 10 years of experience, 11 (38%) had 11 to 20 years of experience, and 4 (14%) had 21 to 30 years of experience, for a mean of 12.5 years (median, 11 years; range, 3 to 23 years). All 29 (100%) handlers had prior deployment experience: 10 (34%) had 1 to 50 deployments, 10 (34%) had 51 to 100 deployments, and 9 (31%) had > 100 deployments, for a mean of 78 deployments (median, 75 deployments; range, 2 to 300 deployments). This was the first large-scale fire scene deployment for 4 handlers and the first disaster deployment for 2 handlers.

Dog signalment and experience

The 30 S&R dogs included 8 (27%) Labrador Retrievers; 5 (17%) Belgian Malinois; 4 (13%) German Shepherd Dogs; 3 (10%) Border Collies; 3 (10%) mixed-breed dogs (Labrador, cattle dog, and shepherd mixes); 2 (7%) each of Golden Retrievers, Australian Cattle Dogs, and Dutch Shepherds; and 1 (3%) Australian Shepherd. There were 16 (53%) spayed females, 7 (23%) neutered males, 4 (13%) sexually intact males, and 3 (10%) sexually intact females. Mean age was 6 years, 2 months (median, 5 years, 9 months; range, 2 years, 5 months to 10 years, 8 months). Mean body weight was 25.7 kg (56.5 lb; median, 25.2 kg [55.5 lb]; range, 13.6 to 36.4 kg [30 to 80 lb]).

All 30 (100%) dogs had been certified in HRD by at least 1 agency, and all 30 (100%) had prior deployment experience. Sixteen (53%) had been on 2 to 25 deployments, 7 (23%) had been on 26 to 50 deployments, 5 (17%) had been on 51 to 75 deployments, and 2 (7%) had been on > 75 deployments, for a mean of 37 deployments (median, 27 deployments; range, 2 to 151 deployments). This was the first postfire mission for 4 dogs and the first large-scale disaster mission for 2 dogs.

Search operations

Deployments of the HRD dogs took place from November 11 to 29, 2018 (ie, from 3 days after the wildfire began to 4 days after it had been completely contained). Altogether, the dogs accrued a total of 161 deployment days, defined as mobilization from home base to demobilization and arrival back to home base. They were deployed for a mean of 5.4 days (median, 4.5 days; range, 1 to 10 days). Ten (33%) dogs were deployed for 4 days, 4 (13%) each were deployed for 6 or 9 days, 3 (10%) each were deployed for 5 or 8 days, 2 (7%) each were deployed for 2 or 3 days, and 1 (3%) each was deployed for 1, 7, or 10 days. Most (17/30 [57%]) CSTs were deployed once, whereas others were deployed multiple times: 11 (37%) 2 times, 1 (3%) 3 times, and 1 (3%) 4 times.

All operational missions were conducted during daylight. Altogether, the 30 dogs participated in 121 shifts, defined as the time they were signed in at the command post to the time they were signed out, for a total of 931 hours. Eight (27%) dogs worked 2 shifts; 7 (23%) each worked 4 or 6 shifts; 2 (7%) each worked 1, 3, or 5 shifts; and 1 (3%) each worked 7 or 10 shifts, for an overall mean of 4 shifts (median, 4 shifts; range, 1 to 10 shifts). The duration of each shift varied from 3 to 14 hours, for an overall mean of 7.7 hours (median, 8 hours; range, 3 to 14 hours).

Hazmat and safety concerns

Briefings on hazards and safety concerns, typically conducted each morning before CSTs set out to mission sites and updated as necessary, were received by 28 of the 29 (97%) handlers. Safety concerns presented in these briefings included inhalation, absorption, injection, or ingestion of or contact with hazardous substances; structural instability; potential exposure to explosives; and weather concerns. Respiratory hazards included carcinogenic woodland, building, chemical, and vehicle smoke; carbon monoxide and other harmful gases released into the atmosphere from the heat of fire and smoldering ashes; aerosolized dry ash; and burning poison oak. Contact hazards included ash (dry and wet), smoldering roots, melted or adherent drywall, and vehicle battery acid. Absorption hazards included household, lawn, and garden chemicals. Injection hazards, frequently covered by ash and debris, included broken glass, windows, and mirrors; nails; twisted metal; and broken masonry. Ingestion hazards included narcotic, cardiac, and respiratory drugs; contaminated foodstuffs; congealed antifreeze; human remains; and contaminated water sources, including puddles and backyard pools. Structure instabilities included floors, ceilings, widow-makers (loose overhead limbs and treetop debris), chimneys, fireplaces, mud slides, and ash-covered septic tanks where covers had burned or melted. Explosives included propane tanks, firearms, and ammunition.

Weather conditions

Environmental temperatures during the deployment period (November 11 to 29, 2018) ranged from 0° to 20°C (32° to 68°F); daily mean temperatures ranged from 7° to 12°C (44° to 54°F). Humidity for the first 10 days ranged between 7% and 69%, then was 32% to 100% for the next 9 days of rainy conditions. Wind speeds ranged from 0 to 31 mph.16

Veterinary care

The California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps established a base veterinary treatment station at the Chico Airport and a forward (near search operation sites) treatment station at the Tall Pines Bowling Alley in Paradise, Calif. The University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Emergency Response Team deployed resources to the base area at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico and to forward operations areas close to search sites. Additional medical care was provided by paramedics and doctors deployed with some task forces. Twenty-eight of the 29 (97%) handlers had access to veterinary services, 3 (10%) reported limited or intermittent availability of these services, and 1 (3%) reported that no veterinary service was available. Of the 28 handlers with veterinary access, 12 (43%) reported that veterinary stations were available both on- and off-site, 8 (29%) reported off-site veterinary stations only, and 7 (25%) reported on-site stations only. One (4%) handler, who did not require veterinary care for the dog, did not know of any veterinary services available during deployment.

Medical examination

Predeployment medical examinations were performed for 23 (77%) dogs: 16 (70%) by the handler, 5 (22%) by a veterinarian, 1 (4%) by both the handler and a veterinarian, and 1 (4%) by both the handler and a veterinary technician. Examinations prior to the start of a shift were performed for 25 (83%) dogs: 18 (72%) by the handler, 4 (16%) by a veterinarian, 2 (8%) by both the handler and a veterinarian, and 1 (4%) by a task force medical specialist. Examinations during shifts were performed for 23 (77%) dogs: 21 (91%) by the handler and 2 (9%) by the handler and a veterinarian. Examinations after each shift were performed for 27 (90%) dogs: 9 (33%) by the handler, 9 (33%) by a veterinarian, 6 (22%) by both the handler and a veterinarian, and 2 (7%) by the handler, a veterinarian, and a veterinary technician. Demobilization examinations were performed for 26 (87%) dogs: 14 (54%) by the handler, 7 (27%) by a veterinarian, 3 (12%) by both the handler and a veterinarian, 1 (4%) by the handler and a human physician, and 1 (4%) by National Guard personnel.

Injuries and illnesses

Medical issues during deployment were reported for 20 of the 30 (67%) dogs, for an IRSDM of 21.5 dogs affected/1,000 h worked. In total, 63 medical issue events were reported, for an IRMIE of 67.7 events/1,000 h worked (Table 1).

Table 1—

Values for IRSDM and IRMIE for 30 HRD dogs that incurred various medical issues during deployment to the scene of the California Camp Fire from November 11 to 29, 2018, as reported by their handlers.

Medical issueNo. (%) of dogs affectedIRSDM*No. of medical eventsIRMIE
Wound13 (43)14.03234.4
Laceration9 (30)9.71617.2
Abrasion8 (27)8.61617.2
Weight loss3 (10)3.233.2
Diarrhea2 (7)2.155.4
Appetite decrease2 (7)2.155.4
Dietary indiscretion2 (7)2.122.1
Lethargy or fatigue3 (10)3.233.2
Dermatologic condition2 (7)2.122.1
Abdominal pain1 (3)1.111.1
Back pain1 (3)1.111.1
Cardiorespiratory distress1 (3)1.111.1
Ocular irritation1 (3)1.111.1
Sneezing or snorting episodes1 (3)1.177.5
Total20 (67)21.56367.7

IRSDM = Total number of dogs affected/1,000 h worked.

IRMIE = Number of medical issue events/1,000 h worked.

Thirteen (43%) dogs were reported to have sustained wounds during deployment, representing a total of 32 injury events (IRMIE, 34.4 injuries/1,000 h worked; Table 1). Of these 13 dogs, 7 had multiple wounds. Overall, 9 (30%) dogs incurred 16 lacerations and 8 (27%) dogs incurred 16 abrasions (Figure 1). Three surveyed handlers described how the injuries had been acquired; 3 described being unable to see what caused the injury owing to ash covering the ground. Other reported sources of injuries included lacerations from metal objects and ceramic edges, paw pad injuries from hidden sharp objects, and interdigital web irritation and sores from buildup of wet ash.12 Dermatologic conditions were reported for 2 (7%) dogs (1 had contact allergic dermatitis, and the other had acute moist dermatitis), and ocular irritation and back pain were reported for 1 (3%) dog each. Wounds and skin and eye conditions were cared for with a combination of clipping, cleaning, topical or antimicrobial administration, bandaging, suturing, stapling, skin glue, and oral anti-inflammatory drugs or opioid administration. All wounds healed or were healing well during deployment; all wounds resolved within 1 to 14 days after demobilization.

Figure 1—
Figure 1—

Numbers of dogs with various medical issues (black bars) and of medical issue events (gray bars) incurred by 30 HRD-certified S&R dogs during deployment to the California Camp Fire in November 2018, as reported by their handlers.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 256, 3; 10.2460/javma.256.3.322

Illness was reported for 10 (33%) dogs, representing a total of 27 illness-related events (IRMIE, 29.0 events/1,000 h worked). The most common reported issues were weight loss and lethargy or fatigue, reported for 3 (10%) dogs each (Table 1, Figure 1). Weight loss was treated by provision of additional food, fatigue by provision of additional rest and relaxation opportunities, diarrhea by provision of extra water and gastrointestinal health supplements, and dietary indiscretion by oral administration of activated charcoal. One dog with intensive sneezing or snorting episodes was merely observed, and clinicopathologic testing and abdominal ultrasonography were performed for 1 dog with reported abdominal pain.

Overall, for the 20 dogs with medical issues, all issues resolved during deployment (n = 7 [35%]) or within 2 weeks after demobilization (13 [65%]). Only the dog with signs of abdominal pain was temporarily withdrawn from search operations, returning to work after a day of rest. One dog reportedly had cardiorespiratory distress (ie, tachypnea, tachycardia, signs of disorientation and lethargy, panting, and shaking) after it had finished its search and was traveling; this dog recovered following demobilization.

Decontamination

The 149th California National Guard set up a mass casualty mobile decontamination unit, which was used for decontamination of all S&R dogs and personnel. The unit had warm water, dishwashing soap, and towels for drying. Driers or warming tents were intermittently available in various locations.

All 30 (100%) dogs underwent decontamination: 29 (97%) by National Guard personnel at their decontamination unit station, 5 (17%) by the handler, and 1 (3%) by firefighters using their fire truck equipment. The handler of 1 (3%) dog was unsure who performed the decontamination. For 29 (97%) dogs, decontamination was performed after every shift; 1 dog received it for more than half of its shifts. Sixteen (53%) dogs also had some level of decontamination performed during their shift (eg, with baby wipes or a water hose), and 1 (3%) dog was also washed down at night in the hotel or at home.

Comparisons with other disaster deployments

Signalment and experience data (Supplementary Table S1, available at avmajournals.avma.org/doi/suppl/10.2460/javma.256.3.322) and deployment data (Supplementary Table S2, available at avmajournals.avma.org/doi/suppl/10.2460/javma.256.3.322) for S&R dogs deployed to the Camp Fire and other disaster scenes were summarized. Summary statistics on wounds (Table 2), illnesses and injuries (Table 3), and additional medical issues (Supplementary Table S3, available at avmajournals.avma.org/doi/suppl/10.2460/javma.256.3.322) were also compiled.

Table 2—

Comparison of summary data* for wounds incurred by S&R dogs deployed in response to the California Camp Fire wildfire (2018); Oso, Wash, State Route 530 landslide (2014); Bastrop County, Tex, wildfire (2012); Haiti earthquake (2010); WTC attacks (2001); and OKC bombing (1995).

Wound typeStatisticCamp FireOso landslide8Bastrop County wildfire9Haiti earthquake7WTC attack6WTC attack2OKC bombing1
LacerationsMorbidity rate9/30 (30)8/25 (32)1/6 (17)6/23 (26)NDND12/69 (17)
 IRSDM9.74.03.23.4NDND2.2
 No. of dogs/No. of events9/168/231/16/6NDND12/12
 IRMIE17.211.43.23.4NDND2.2
Abrasions or superficial woundsMorbidity rate8/30 (27)5/25 (20)NR1/23 (4)NDND3/69 (4)
 IRSDM8.62.5NR0.6NDND0.6
 No. of dogs/No. of events8/165/6NR1/1NDND3/3
 IRMIE17.23.0NR0.6NDND0.6
PuncturesMorbidity rateNRNRNR1/23 (4)NDNDNR
 IRSDMNRNRNR0.6NDNDNR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNRNRNR1/1NDNDNR
 IRMIENRNRNR0.6NDNDNR
Paw pad cracks and splitsMorbidity rateNR3/25 (12)NRNRNRNRNR
 IRSDMNR1.5NRNRNRNRNR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR3/12NRNRNRNRNR
 IRMIENR6.0NRNRNRNRNR
Worn padsMorbidity rateNR1/25 (4)NRNRNRNR4/69 (6)
 IRSDMNR0.5NRNRNRNR0.7
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR1/16NRNRNRNR4/8–4/16
 IRMIENR7.9NRNRNRNR1.5–2.9
BurnsMorbidity rateNRNR3/6 (50)NRNRNRNR
 IRSDMNRNR9.6NRNRNRNR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNRNR3/3NRNRNRNR
 IRMIENRNR9.6NRNRNRNR
All wound types overallMorbidity rate13/30 (43)12/25 (48%)4/6 (67)6/23 (26)14/27 (52)34/96 (35)19/69 (28)
 IRSDM14.06.012.83.43.89.23.5
 No. of dogs/No. of events13/3212/574/46/8ND34/3519/20
 IRMIE34.428.312.84.59.39.43.7

Morbidity rate data represent the proportion (%) of all dogs with the indicated medical issue.

Data from studies other than the present study were obtained from previous reports, as indicated.

Estimate.

ND = No details provided.

NR = Not reported.

See Table 1 for remainder of key.

Overall, signalment characteristics of the dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene did not differ substantially from those of dogs deployed to other disaster scenes, and Belgian Malinois, Golden Retriever, and Labrador-Shepherd mix breeds were consistently among the most common breeds (Supplementary Table S1). Lacerations and abrasions were the most common injuries across the spectrum of the evaluated deployments, with morbidity rates ranging from 17% to 30% (Table 2). The incidence of dehydration differed across deployment scenes, with no dehydration reported for dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene (Table 3). The incidences of fatigue or lethargy for dogs deployed to the Camp Fire, Oso, and OKC disaster scenes were nearly identical, but the incidence for dogs deployed to the WTC scene was 2 to 4 times as great.

Table 3—

Comparison of summary data* for illnesses and injuries (ie, medical issues) other than wounds incurred by S&R dogs deployed in response to the California Camp Fire wildfire (2018); Oso, Wash, State Route 530 landslide (2014); Bastrop County, Tex, wildfire (2012); Haiti earthquake (2010); WTC attacks (2001); and OKC bombing (1995).

Illness or injuryStatisticCamp FireOso landslide8Bastrop County wildfire9Haiti earthquake7WTC attack6WTC attack2OKC bombing1
LamenessMorbidity rateNR3/25 (12)NRNR2/27 (7)8/96 (8)NR
 IRSDMNR1.5NRNR0.52.2NR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR3/3NRNR2/28/8NR
 IRMIENR1.5NRNR0.82.2NR
Conjunctival irritationMorbidity rate1/30 (3)1/25 (4)NR2/23 (9)17/27 (63)8/96 (8)1/69 (1)
 IRSDM1.10.5NR1.14.72.20.2
 No. of dogs/No. of events1/11/1NR2/217/178/121/1
 IRMIE1.10.5NR1.113.13.20.2
Ear infectionMorbidity rateNR1/25 (4)NR1/23 (4)NRNR1/69 (1)
 IRSDMNR0.5NR0.6NRNR0.2
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR1/1NR1/1NRNR1/1
 IRMIENR0.5NR0.6NRNR0.2
Dermatologic condition (eg, infection, allergic reaction, erythroderma, or mass)Morbidity rate2/30 (7)8/25 (32)NR2/23 (9)9/27 (33)NRNR
 IRSDM2.14.0NR1.12.5NRNR
 No. of dogs/No. of events2/28/12NR2/29/9NRNR
 IRMIE2.16.0NR1.16.2NRNR
Acute caudal myopathyMorbidity rateNR2/25 (8)NRNRNRNRNR
 IRSDMNR1.0NRNRNRNRNR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR2/2NRNRNRNRNR
 IRMIENR1.0NRNRNRNRNR
Respiratory condition (eg, coughing, sneezing, or other respiratory signs)Morbidity rate1/30 (3)NRNRNR16/27 (59)8/96 (8)2/69 (3)
 IRSDM1.1NRNRNR4.42.20.4
 No. of dogs/No. of events1/7NRNRNR16/168/82/2
 IRMIE7.5NRNRNR12.42.20.4
Gastrointestinal concerns (eg, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, or appetite change)Morbidity rate6/30 (20)11/25 (44)NRNRND21/96 (22)31/69 (45)
 IRSDM6.45.5NRNRND5.75.7
 No. of dogs/No. of events6/1511/22NRNRND21/4431/32
 IRMIE16.110.9NRNRND11.95.9
DehydrationMorbidity rateNR10/25 (40)1/6 (17)7/23 (30)13/27 (48)19/96 (20)NR
 IRSDMNR5.03.23.93.65.1NR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR10/211/17/713/1319/38NR
 IRMIENR10.43.23.910.010.2NR
Hyperthermia or heat exhaustionMorbidity rateNR1/25 (4)1/6 (17)NRNR6/96 (6)NR
 IRSDMNR0.53.2NRNR1.6NR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNR1/11/1NRNR6/6NR
 IRMIENR0.53.2NRNR1.6NR
Urinary tract condition (eg, hematuria, pollakiuria, polyuria, or urinary tract infection)Morbidity rateNRNRNR1/23 (4)2/27 (7)5/96 (5)NR
 IRSDMNRNRNR0.60.51.3NR
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNRNRNR1/12/25/5NR
 IRMIENRNRNR0.60.81.3NR
SeizureMorbidity rateNRNRNRNRNRNR2/69 (3)
 IRSDMNRNRNRNRNRNR0.4
 No. of dogs/No. of eventsNRNRNRNRNRNR2/2
 IRMIENRNRNRNRNRNR0.4
Fatigue or lethargyMorbidity rate3/30 (10)7/25 (28)NRNR19/27 (70)23/96 (24)19/69 (28)
 IRSDM3.23.5NRNR5.26.23.5
 No. of dogs/No. of events3/34/6NRNR19/1923/2819/19
 IRMIE3.23.0NRNR13.17.53.5
All medical issues overallMorbidity rate20/30 (67)21/25 (84)5/6 (83)10/23 (43)22/27 (81)65/96 (68)34/69 (49)
 IRSDM21.510.416.05.66.017.56.2
 No. of dogs/No. of events20/6321/1345/610/2522/13565/17734/104
 IRMIE67.766.519.214.036.947.719.1

Calculation based on 34 dogs over 16 days.

Calculation based on 104 medical issue events over 16 days.

See Tables 1 and 2 for remainder of key.

Discussion

The Camp Fire S&R mission provided an opportunity to study a large population of S&R dogs over an extended period in a postfire environment with respect to the unique hazards they face and the associated medical issues. Handlers, medics, and other personnel working with such dogs should be vigilant for the conditions identified in the present study and other studies1,2,6–9 and implement preventive measures to avoid commonly encountered medical issues. Such measures can contribute to maintenance of peak search performance as well as swift effective medical treatment of injured or ill dogs with the goal of returning to field operations in a safe and timely manner.

Dog signalment data from the present study and previous studies can be used by first responders to guide medical training and logistic supply needs. Notable was the shift from German Shepherd Dogs as the most common breed deployed to both terrorist events (WTC and OKC) to Labrador Retrievers, the most common breed deployed to the Camp Fire and other disasters.1,2,4–8 One reason for this difference could be that a large proportion of dogs deployed to the WTC and OKC scenes were law enforcement patrol dogs, all of which were German Shepherd Dogs, and such patrol dogs might have been used because of the terrorist nature of these events. Training of canine medical first responders can be tailored to treat the most commonly deployed breeds. In addition to information on wounds and other commonly incurred mission-specific medical issues, information on the treatment of general medical issues common to the dog breeds used in S&R missions, such as stress-induced colitis, caudal myopathy, perianal fistula, and laryngeal paralysis, should be included during this training.

Other signalment details characterized in the present study provided additional information for deployment preparation and training as well. Body weight data can be used to predict the amounts and sizes of logistic supplies and equipment needed as well as dose needs for injectable and oral drug formulations. Age data suggested that the medical needs of older (up to 11-year-old) dogs would need to be considered, and the summarized reproductive status data could be used to anticipate concerns related to dogs being sexually intact versus spayed or neutered.

The large-scale deployment of S&R dogs to the postfire event of the present study shared many physical and chemical safety concerns with previously reported deployments, such as rubble instability, sharp hazards, household and garden chemicals, and human remains; however, hazards not typically encountered such as respiratory concerns were also identified. Similar to the WTC scene, where fires burned for 100 days after the initial attack,17 and the Bastrop County fire scene,9 the dangers of smoke inhalation and other aerosolized toxic substances were present during deployment of the HRD dogs to the Camp Fire scene. The Camp Fire involved 14,000 homes, with all the attendant chemicals and vapors that a typical urban fire would produce. For burning trees alone, the primary health hazard would be the fine (≤ 2.5 μm) particulate matter that causes primary airway problems (ie, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and ear, nose, and throat irritation) and secondary cardiovascular problems. Additionally, exposure may occur to gases such as carbon monoxide and respiratory irritants such as acrolein, formaldehyde, and benzene. The Camp Fire search areas had particularly high amounts of smoke from smoldering woodland trees and roots. Poison oak fumes were another unique concern.

Ingestion hazards, whether direct or indirect (eg, by licking of contaminated fur and paws), were also present at the Camp Fire scene. During searches in and around vehicles, dogs were exposed to congealed antifreeze and battery acid that may not have been visible under ash and debris. Frequent paw pad checks and wiping of paws were recommended to decrease the risk of sustained exposure or accidental ingestion. Also, dog handlers were cautioned during safety briefings about potential exposure to unknown pharmaceutical substances, including illicit drugs, during home searches.

Thermal injuries are another postfire concern, with the smoldering hot roots and other ground cover often hidden under ash and soot. Ground temperatures are a long-term safety concern, given that smoldering roots and underground fires may be active hours, days, and weeks after a fire has passed through.18–20 These conditions increase the risk of dogs becoming dehydrated, inhaling dust and smoke, and developing heat stress or paw pad injury. To reduce health risks to the dogs associated with a fire disaster environment, frequent rest, vehicle transport to mission sites, and air-conditioned vans have been integrated into search operations.9 In situations of potential burn injury, bandages and booties may be used; however, it is important that these items be monitored to ensure they are not melting from the heat, which may injure the paw pads.

Paw protection in the form of bandages, booties, or both has been used intermittently in several deployments of S&R dogs.2,6,8,9 Such use may provide protection from potential injury (eg, those caused by caustic spills, sharp rubble, or extreme hot or cold temperatures) or treatment for injury, offering sufficient comfort and padding to allow for pain-free ambulation over the search area. Ground temperatures at the Bastrop County fire scene were in some areas sufficient to melt the soles of people's boots. Burns of the paw pads were documented for dogs deployed to the Bastrop County fire scene9; however, no such injuries were reported for dogs deployed to the WTC2,3,6 or Camp Fire scenes. Ground temperature is one of several environmental conditions that dog handlers evaluate. Mammalian tissues can only survive within a narrow temperature range (20° to 44°C [68° to 111°F]).21 Variables that influence the extent of tissue burns include the applied temperature, achieved temperature in the tissue, ability of the body surface to conduct the excess heat away, duration of exposure to the heat, and thermal capacity of the tissue. Compared with skin in humans, the skin of dogs and cats does not disseminate heat to the same extent because there is no superficial vascular plexus, resulting in a comparatively higher vulnerability to injury caused by heat exposure.18 In the absence of available information for dogs, handlers typically estimate the potential injury hazard to dog paw pads by considering whether the temperature may be too hot for a human hand or foot to endure without pain or injury.

Debris hazards from above by widow-makers and below from compromised sewer covers represented additional physical hazards for the dogs of the present study. One HRD dog was reported to have fallen through a sewer cover during operations, but the dog sustained only minor abrasions. Handlers tested the ground with poles before sending dogs into areas of concern. In the authors’ experience, clods of burned battery acid and antifreeze can form under and around vehicles but be hidden by ash and debris. Dogs walking over such hazards were at risk for contact, absorption, and ingestion toxicoses. Frequent paw pad checks and wiping of paws were recommended to limit such exposure.

Lacerations and abrasions were the most common medical issue for the dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene, reported for 43% of dogs, and were also common within the other S&R and search-and-rescue dogs deployed to other disasters (17% to 30%).1,2,4–8 Exposure of paws, limbs, and bodies to sharp objects, both visible and hidden (eg, under mud, water, or ash) played a role in at least 3 injuries and played an important role in several other injuries.12 Booties for protection of paws may be used in situations where safe maneuvering is not heavily dependent on the use of bare paws for security and traction on unstable, slippery, or toxic surfaces. Otherwise, frequent checking, cleaning, and drying of the paws is needed to remove compacted wet cement dust,3 ash, or toxic substances and detect and treat lesions early. Vests, leggings, and other protective gear add weight, reduce maneuverability, and provide places for rubble to catch, making search operations potentially more dangerous for S&R dogs, but have been used to protect the dogs from thorns and the cold.8

Despite lack of eye and nose protection, conjunctival and respiratory issues were uncommon among dogs deployed to the disaster scenes summarized in the present study, except for the New York Police Department dogs deployed to the WTC scene, which were deployed early in the disaster and exposed during the period with the highest levels of dust and airborne debris.2,3,6 Flushing of the dogs’ eyes and wiping of their noses and mouths helped reduce the amount of superficial contaminants.3,6 Dogs in Haiti were exposed to concrete and lime dust that was kicked up while they were being transported in open box trucks. Although no dogs had coughing, their human team members did.7 Natural tearing and blinking mechanisms may be sufficient to protect the eyes in most circumstances. Although panting may increase exposure of the upper tracheobronchial region to particulates, active scenting through the nose may allow dogs to better filter out large particulates. Dogs also have larger (vs humans) conducting airways and efficient collateral airways and are highly resistant to developing asthma or reactive airway disease. These factors may minimize concentrated exposure of dogs to irritants.5

Dehydration was not reported for any of the dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene; however, the incidence of dehydration was relatively moderate for dogs deployed to the Haiti and Texas disaster scenes, where ambient conditions were hot and dry for the duration of the deployment (IRMIE, 3.9 and 3.2 events/1,000 h worked, respectively). Prophylactic SC fluid administration was provided to many of the dogs in Haiti and Texas, and none were reported to have had concomitant vomiting or diarrhea; these factors may explain the relatively moderate incidence of dehydration despite the heat.7,9 In comparison, dogs deployed to the Oso and WTC disaster scenes had an incidence of dehydration that was 2.5 to 3 times as high (IRMIE, 10.4 events/1,000 h worked and 10.0 to 10.2 events/1,000 h worked, respectively). Several factors may have contributed to these differences, including environmental conditions (weather, wind, and humidity), total number of hours worked by the dogs, and illness (eg, vomiting, diarrhea, appetite change, and weight loss).2,3,6,8 Ensuring that handlers understand the potential risk of dehydration, can recognize it early, and take preventive measures can help decrease the incidence of dehydration. Such preventive measures can include providing prehydration via SC fluid administration and regular intervals away from operations for dogs to rest, cool down, and rehydrate; encouraging dogs to drink by adding a favorite food or treat in the water; and promptly addressing other medical issues (eg, vomiting and diarrhea) that contribute to or cause dehydration.3

The incidence of fatigue or lethargy for dogs deployed to the Camp Fire scene (IRMIE, 3.2 events/1,000 h worked) was nearly identical to that for dogs deployed to the Oso (3.0 events/1,000 h worked) and OKC (3.5 events/1,000 h worked) disaster scenes, but the incidence for dogs deployed to the WTC scene was 2 to 4 times as great as these values (7.5 to 13.1 events/1,000 h worked). Implementation of adequate work-rest cycles, vital sign checks during search operations, and general environmental awareness may help to prevent fatigue and lethargy in S&R dogs.

Orthopedic, aural, urinary, neurologic, and non-specific medical issues were not reported for many of the dogs deployed to the Camp Fire and other disaster scenes. The underlying cause of the back pain, abdominal pain, and cardiorespiratory distress reported for 1 dog each in the Camp Fire cohort was not established, and all dogs returned to operations within a day of their reported medical issue. The medical community caring for S&R dogs should be prepared for these medical issues, but the more common issues should be emphasized in training and preparedness activities.

Overall, only 1 S&R dog in the Camp Fire cohort was removed from operations for 1 day for health reasons (ie, signs of abdominal pain). Another dog had signs of cardiorespiratory distress, but such signs occurred during demobilization and did not impact mission assignment. Both dogs recovered within 24 hours after the signs were first noticed. All other dogs treated for injury or illness continued with their missions during treatment. The dog that fell through a compromised sewer cover had only minor injuries. All dogs with medical issues recovered during deployment or within 2 weeks after demobilization.

Veterinary personnel were present in an official capacity for the Camp Fire and all other summarized deployments except the one to Haiti. Several agencies have participated in support of deployed search dogs: the veterinary reserve corps (California and Washington), veterinary response teams (University of California-Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team, Veterinary Medical Assistance Team, and Texas A&M University Veterinary Emergency Team), state veterinary medical associations (Long Island, New York, and Oklahoma), society for prevention of cruelty to animals (Suffolk County, NY), and FEMA (task forces and the Incident Support Team). Local veterinarians were present at the OKC bombing and Oso landslide scenes. The presence of veterinary teams trained for operation in disaster environments has several advantages. The teams can provide treatment of an illness or injury before the medical issue takes an S&R dog out of service; provide preventive care; educate handlers about canine-specific hazmat, endemic disease, and safety concerns; provide canine-specific medications and supplies; and work safely in a hazardous environment taking appropriate precautions to prevent these veterinary volunteers from becoming victims themselves. In the FEMA US&R system, medical personnel receive training in the care of search dogs and are responsible for field first aid in the absence of available veterinary personnel.

Decontamination protocols are a standard operating procedure for FEMA search dogs and a recognized health and safety need in other agencies. Canine-specific decontamination systems are part of the approved logistic cache of supplies and equipment and are used when other decontamination stations are unavailable. Removal of dirt, debris, potentially hazardous substances, and human remains from the dogs’ coat and paws decreases the risk of absorption and ingestion and prevents the spread of these substances back to the base of operations and billeting locations. All S&R dogs deployed to the Camp Fire, Oso landslide, Bastrop County fire, and Haiti earthquake scenes were decontaminated after search operations, with the National Guard providing mass decontamination units and allowing the dogs to go through their system in California and Washington. At the WTC scene, search dog decontamination stations were set up at several sites: on the perimeter of the disaster site next to veterinary treatment sites and next to fire stations. At the Camp Fire, if handlers could not get their dogs to the National Guard, they performed their own decontamination or used the water source from a fire truck. Whether an advanced system or a simple wipe down, any decontamination is better than none. Because of a combination of repeated washing with dishwashing liquid, depletion of the natural protective oils of the dermis, and lack of complete drying of the fur after decontamination procedures, the highest incidence of moist dermatitis occurred in dogs deployed to the Oso landslide scene (IRMIE, 4.5 events/1,000 h worked). The US&R handlers are now advised to consider using canine shampoo or baby shampoo and be diligent in complete drying of their dogs’ fur.

Wildfires are not a new phenomenon, but in many regions of the United States, particularly the western states, they have become larger, longer lasting, more frequent, and more destructive in terms of lives lost and economic costs.22 In 2017 in California, 9,000 wildfires burned more than 1 million acres of land. That same year, fire seasons in Washington and Oregon extended nearly 3 weeks longer than ever recorded. In August of 2018, less than a year after the Thomas fire grew to become the largest fire in California's history, the Mendocino Complex Fire broke that record. In November of that year, the Camp Fire became the deadliest and most destructive California fire on record.22 Wildfire seasons in the country—particularly those in years with higher wildfire potential—are projected to lengthen, with the Southwest's season of fire potentially lengthening from 7 months to year long. Additionally, the likelihood that individual wildfires become severe is expected to increase.23 Consequently, deployment of search dogs into a postfire environment is likely to continue as well as increase in frequency. We believe that information obtained in the study reported here regarding medical issues incurred by the S&R dogs and the unique hazards identified in the Camp Fire environment will guide future changes in advancing disaster preparedness training and injury and illness prevention.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank task force leader Mark Foster of the Massachusetts Task Force 1 National Urban Search and Rescue Team and canine handler Eric Darling of Orange County Task Force 10 for their assistance with survey distribution, deployment conditions, and documentation of fire scene safety and hazards information and support for this report.

ABBREVIATIONS

CST

Canine search team

FEMA

Federal Emergency Management Agency

HRD

Human remains detection

OES

Office of Emergency Services

OKC

Oklahoma City

IRMIE

Medical issue event incidence rate

IRSDM

Search dog morbidity incidence rate

S&R

Search-and-recovery

US&R

Urban Search and Rescue

WTC

World Trade Center

Footnotes

a.

Survey available on request from the corresponding author.

b.

Migala AF, Brown SE, Texas Engineering Extension Service, Texas A&M University, College Station, Tex: Personal communication, 2019.

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