In Florida, one of the legacies of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the birth of the concept of local animal responder volunteer teams ready to assist authorities with dealing with a large influx of animals displaced by disasters. Spearheaded by the Humane Society of the US, Disaster Animal Response teams would be trained in rescuing and retrieving animals left behind, operating emergency shelters, and tracking these animals with the goal of returning them to their owners. The HSUS developed a specific training for these animal responder volunteers and provided the training in dozens of locations around Florida. In short order, DART teams popped up in several locations – Tampa, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Sarasota and in Volusia, Manatee, Sumter and Hernando Counties.
On the whole these were loosely organized volunteer groups who would come together for trainings and exercises or when a disaster occurred. Most of these teams did not develop an organized structure or seek any kind of official status. The largest and most successful of these teams was Bay Area DART, boasting a high number of dedicated members. Bay Area DART aligned itself with the Tampa SPCA, bringing the benefit of funding and a facility for training and storage of equipment. Alignment with this local SPCA meant Bay Area DART did not need to seek nonprofit status or spend time and resources on fundraising, or develop an organized structure with bylaw, officers, and a board. Its organizational structure was based on the leadership of its founders.
The Tallahassee group, Big Bend DART, took a different path. Reorganizing in 2003, the team developed bylaws, elected officers and a board, incorporated in the state of Florida, and applied for (and received) charitable nonprofit 501c3 status with the IRS. As a bona fide nonprofit, Big Bend DART could raise funds and provide donors with a tax-deductible receipt, and apply for a wider range of grants. The strong organizational structure provided members with a strong sense of identity and continuity. Today, all of the DART teams have fallen by the wayside with the exception of Big Bend DART. Its organizational structure, dedicated membership, and success in securing grants and funding have kept it alive and well.
In 2010 another group formed, the Florida Statewide Animal Response Coalition. Originally SARC’s goal was to be a clearinghouse and umbrella organization for all the local DART teams to improve networking and share information and training across the different teams. Florida SARC received its 501c3 nonprofit status in 2011 and its first big push was to develop a basic Animal Responder Awareness Level training that would take the place of other animal disaster trainings and would be required of any animal responder volunteering within Florida. SARC maintains a database of animal responders who have taken this required training, as well as information on their experience level and past deployments. Working closely with the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, SARC took on the added function of dispatch: any animal responders volunteering to work a disaster in Florida would be deployed through Florida SARC. In theory, SARC could draw on volunteers from across the state to respond to any incident. While it may be more efficient at the state level, it eliminates the need for individual DART teams. In a disaster, state or local authorities would request SARC to supply volunteers (from anywhere in the state) instead of relying on a volunteer team already in the local area. From a logistical standpoint, this made DART teams defunct.
Still, Big Bend DART is alive and well as a local DART team and continues to be a presence in the local community. This got me thinking about whether we even need local DART teams anymore. If a county or municipality needs a certain number of animal responder volunteers, they simply contact Florida SARC and request them. So what good is it to have a local team? Florida SARC has effectively replaced local DART teams.
However, I believe there is a great benefit for having local teams. In a disaster, especially a rapid onset like a hazardous chemical spill, well-trained local volunteers are crucial in immediate response. They are familiar with the area and with local facilities that may be possible emergency shelter locations; they have established relationships with local emergency managers; and they have extensive networks of organizations, veterinarians, businesses and friends ready to supply equipment, barns, pastures and other resources. A strong and varied program of trainings tells local officials that these volunteers are not only capable, but competent. But perhaps the strongest benefit is to the community at large: a local DART team can play a key role in educating the public about being prepared for disasters with their animals and making sure their local community is ready for any type of large-scale animal disaster. Big Bend DART constantly does presentations at schools, camps, community groups and neighborhood associations, as well as participating in local animal events with an educational display. We organized a fundraising campaign to buy pet oxygen masks for every response vehicle in Tallahassee as well as supplying them to Fire Departments and VFDs in 7 counties surrounding Tallahassee, and serve as a resource for the local Chapter of the American Red Cross assisting a family that has experienced a house fire or other personal disaster and needs assistance with their family pet. Over the past dozen years, Big Bend DART has become an integral part of the disaster response community and developed a reputation for service based on respect and trust. It’s about building relationships within the community, something harder to achieve with a group of volunteers from around the state who have no stake in the local community.