Pearl, rescued from a Dec. 15 barn fire by firefighter Paul Williams, with Lexi Antonnucci. Lexi leases Pearl from Greenmoor Commons, the farm where the fire occurred. Picture by Fran Mocker
Ed Childers is the kind of guy you want to have around in an emergency. When he's not working his day job as a manufacturer's representative for Siemens, or hanging out with his horses, he's a volunteer firefighter with the North Strabane Township Fire Department in Canonsburg, near Pittsburgh. But Childers the firefighter and horse lover turned into Childers the teacher after a barn fire at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
"Last year there was a small barn fire in one of the barns at the Meadows. I heard the call go out on the radio. I was out of jurisdiction." He has a friend who is a groom at the Meadows, Childers says, and he called the groom. The fire turned out to be a minor incident, but it raised a lot of questions for Childers. "What if that were a more substantial fire?" he wondered. "What would we have done? Our primary concern is human, and second is the animals." Childers says he often trailers his horses, and became concerned about road emergencies, too. "I drive a lot on I-79 and I-76 with my horse trailer. If I were to get in an accident, is there anyone there who could help me?"
He couldn't shake the thought that he and his colleagues might not be prepared to save horses in emergencies, whether fires, floods or traffic accidents.
Learning to Rescue Large Animals, Then Teaching Others
Childers turned his worry into research. He talked to veterinarians and professionals, and came across an organization dedicated to teaching people about emergencies involving large animals. The Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER) organization had the curriculum Childers was looking for, and he and a fellow firefighter, Paul Williams, went to Arizona for TLAER's training program.
Beth Ann Rau, a Pittsburgh-area TLAER volunteer who does a lot of the technical work for the organization, says that TLAER's courses are hands-on and practical. "TLAER instructors travel all over the country, and train animal control officers, horse owners, paramedics, vets, etc." While you may think that only horses, donkeys, mules and cattle are included in the large animal category, that's not always the case, Rau says. "Anything larger than a human presents unique challenges," she explains. Recently TLAER volunteers helped rescue a Florida manatee that had gone off course and wandered up the Atlantic coast to New Jersey.
Childers and Williams returned from their training eager to share what they had learned, and they developed a seminar they're calling "Save Your Horse." The seminar, which the North Strabane Township Fire Department offers monthly, incorporates TLAER concepts, along with principles from Michelle Staples' book "Save Your Horse! A Horse Owner's Guide to Large Animal Rescue." Childers says the book should be in every horse owner's library, and it addresses specific emergency situations with clarity and valuable insights. For instance, he says, "It shows at a very high level certain rescue techniques you can use to help get your horse out of a trailer in an emergency."
The training program is meant to help every horse owner recognize what they don't know about protecting their animals. He says they cover trail safety, pasture safety, barn and trailer safety, too. "Awareness is more important than anything," Childers explains. "A lot of the horse owners think they know everything. What we're pointing out is more than common sense. We're preparing them for an incident. We're taking things that people don't think of, and putting them at the forefront."
Hit the Owner's Manual Before You Hit the Road
For example, not long ago Childers was traveling with some customers on I-80 near Cleveland. He noticed a three-horse trailer parked along the shoulder with its lights flashing. Because he was with customers and because there was no evidence that there had been an accident, Childers didn't stop. Later, when he was heading the opposite direction on the interstate, he noticed the trailer still parked along the shoulder. He turned around and went back to see if he could help the driver.
"There were two mid-twenty year-old kids coming back from New York. They got two flat tires on their truck and didn't know what to do." The kids told him that they had been there for hours, and the police had stopped once to confirm that they were okay.
Childers says that one of the first things anyone hauling horses needs to do is learn how to take care of emergency situations. Flat tires are not unique. Two flat tires turn an inconvenience into a potential crisis, though. Fortunately, although he couldn't help with the flat tires, Childers did have brochures from USRider (roadside assistance plans) in his car. The kids called, signed up for the service and help arrived pretty quickly.
"We take the animals we love, and that trust us, and put them in a trailer and hit the road. The animal doesn't know that you're not prepared," Childers explains. "This is give-back to the animals." He says that many people would be just like those kids. They wouldn't know what to do, they might not have the proper safety equipment to alert other motorists, or if they had the proper equipment, they might not know how to use it to ensure their own safety and the safety of the horses in their trailers.
Knowledge Trumps Fear
The objective of the course is to make horse owners more cognizant of their responsibilities for the safety and protection of their horses. "We're not trying to scare anybody. You have to prioritize," he says. It's something even the most seasoned horse owner needs to do. "I have to prioritize in my mind what I need to do to make the environment safer for the animals. What can I afford to do to make it safer?"
The four-hour "Save Your Horse" seminar also helps people identify safety hazards in their barns, from construction defects, to electrical problems, and to set priorities for eliminating hazards. "We present this information so people can ask themselves if they're doing something that's hazardous." He says that people don't think about things like Christmas lights or heated water buckets as potential problems, but they should look at how these things are operating. He also says people should look at the types of fans they use in the summer, too. "As a barn owner I was a little overwhelmed. A lot of my research scared me a little bit. But when you prioritize it in your mind, it makes it a lot easier."
Childers and Williams are willing and eager to take their show on the road, and have begun teaching large animal rescue techniques to first responders in the North Strabane Township Fire Department and other operations in the region. "We noticed the firefighters weren't comfortable around the horses. They were fine going through the training, but when it came down to it, they weren't comfortable," he says. So they went back to the basics: halters, bridles, lead lines. They focused on the kinds of unique dangers firefighters might face in equestrian facilities.
A Hero Comes to the Rescue
Here's the payoff. In December 2009, there was a fire at a local barn, and workers were able to move almost all the horses out of the barn and into an emergency pasture. One horse, Pearl, refused to leave her stall. Williams, who is also a farrier, and who knows Pearl, was on the scene fighting the fire. He went in to the burning barn and led Pearl to safety. She survived with a few abrasions and minor burns. Her rescue was an emotional and unforgettable testimonial to the lessons learned in "Save Your Horse."
The next "Save Your Horse" seminar will be on Saturday, February 13, 2010. To register for the seminar, go to the North Strabane Township Fire Department website: www.nstfd.org, and click on Animal Rescue. To find out more about Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, go to the organization's website: www.tlaer.org.