The fire service has to take the lead in the fight against avian influenza

Published:  07 October, 2015

COMMENT: The fire service has to take on a leading role when it  comes to the response to avian influenza, write Ken Burris and Christina Crue of Witt O’Brien’s.

To date, The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has overseen the culling of over 48 million chickens and turkeys in 2015 due to highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

HPAI is of considerable concern to the poultry industry as it poses a significant threat to the entire poultry ecosystem, from producers to consumers. To mitigate the impact of the disease, APHIS and animal health officials must rapidly quarantine and depopulate flocks on infected premises. The depopulation, disposal, cleaning, and disinfecting process is time and resource intensive. However, it is imperative to limit the spread and reinfection of flocks. As a result, communities should explore ways in which local resources can support these efforts. The fire service has many capabilities and expertise that could support the operational response. There are three areas are where the fire service can bring its collective expertise to the farm-specific operational environment.

Management of the hot zone

Fire services have been experienced in dealing with hazardous materials and this makes firefighters uniquely suited to assist in the management of the hot zone. For instance, the fire service can provide training to contract workers in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) associated with depopulation efforts to the management of decontamination of workers before leaving the infected farm.

Epidemiologists understand HPAI starts in the domestic poultry population from transmission through birds in the wild. Barn sparrows and migratory fowl such as ducks appear to be the primary carriers. However, after HPAI appears, the secondary transmission method is cross-contamination as a result of human intervention. The virus can attach to boots, clothing, and equipment and move from farm to farm as a result. Therefore, it is critical that the correct hot zone management and decontamination practices are to be followed. This is critical as fire teams may ultimately have to move between poultry farms if an epidemic breaks out.

Depopulation operations

The use of water-based foam is considered an appropriate method for depopulation of floor-reared poultry (ie broiler chickens and turkeys) in accord with USDA-APHIS performance standards (USDA-APHIS Performance Standards for the Use of Water-Based Foam as a Method of Mass Depopulation of Domestic Poultry). This is directly taken from The American Veterinarian Medical Association recommendations of use of water-based foam found at

While it may be obvious to the fire services, it might not be so obvious to the poultry industry that foam production is an organic capability of the fire service of every community. Either direct pump injection or in-line hose induction of water-based foam exist in virtually every community in the world and is a critical operational capability required in a depopulation effort. It would be wise for fire services to visit poultry producers in their local area and do the preplanning necessary to produce the required volume of foam necessary to depopulate the average poultry house in the community which the fire department serves.

Production of required volumes of foam requires a large water source. As seen in the recent HPAI outbreak, some poultry premises are removed from reliable water sources. Therefore, the ability to identify and transport and store water may be needed. Using tankers, portable water tanks, shuttling pumpers, and other types of water tender within the fire service would expedite response efforts and cut response costs.

The Incident Command System (ICS)

The ICS is so natural to the fire service that we sometimes forget the veterinary profession and the average worker in the poultry industry may not even have the most rudimentary understanding of the concept. An AI incident in your area will be classed as a large-scale disaster. It may be hard to imagine the confluence of federal, state, and local officials at a local farm, but it will happen and it will require every organisation involved to effectively function within this incident command system.

When an HPAI emergency is taking place, the local fire department should assume a mentor role in the implementation of ICS. As HPAI is an animal disease of national significance, the Incident Commander will be a veterinarian most likely from the state or federal level - something that - from Witt O’Brien’s experience - can be unsettling at a community level. As the local fire services hold the relationships and trust of the community, it is the fire services’ responsibility to step in and mentor those most impacted by an HPAI event and lower the anxiety level associated with the depopulation effort.

HPAI possess a significant threat to the poultry industry internationally. However, like all such incidents the greatest impact is at the local level. The fire service has the ability to reduce the impact by reducing or stopping the spread of the disease with the correct hot zone protocols, assisting with water-based foam production, and serving as a coordinating and calming presence in the community. Preplanning and preparedness as well as discussions with the appropriate state agricultural officials are significant keys to a successful integration of the fire service into an HPAI response.

Ken Burris is Witt O'Brien's CE. His career in risk management and disaster response provides him with the insight to lead an organisation that guides a client’s enterprise risk management needs and through the life cycle of crises or emergencies should the need arise. Burris’ career has placed him in multiple leadership and executive roles in local government and federal agencies. At the City of Marietta (Georgia) Fire and Emergency Services, Burris served as its Fire Chief. During his tenure with the City, he was the director of operations for the Georgia Mutual Aid Group for the 1996 Olympic Games, and held executive positions with the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Fire Chiefs. At the federal level, Mr. Burris was selected as the first chief operating officer of the US Fire Administration (USFA). In this executive role, he was credited with the implementation and deployment of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, a grant program that has awarded billions of dollars in funding to fire departments and emergency medical service organisations in meeting firefighting and emergency response needs. While at USFA, he was deployed to the World Trade Center Towers during 9/11, where he was responsible for establishing the command and control structure for the federal response at Ground Zero. His efforts were recognised by the director of FEMA with the Director’s Award.

Christina Crue is the vice president of strategic advisory services for Witt O’Brien’s. Crue provides preparedness-related consulting services to the public and private sector, and has long focused on enhancing the capabilities of business and governments, to prepare for, respond to, mitigate against, and recover from all types of hazards. Her expertise includes developing preparedness plans, courses, and exercises and advising clients on improvement planning and strategic planning at all levels of government. Crue leads the Witt O’Brien’s team supporting USDA’s efforts to manage the avian flu 2015 outbreak, which included support to command posts in Minnesota and Iowa as well as the National Coordination Group in Maryland. Prior to joining Witt O’Brien’s, Crue was as a senior trainer and project manager. She served as exercise director for the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS), managing a team of eight and developing and delivering discussion- and operations-based exercises, to include multiple regional project focused on resource need identification. Crue served as branch manager for the Exercise and Training Branch of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). Crue came to MEMA from the Battelle Memorial Institute, where she worked closely with local, state, and federal partners on exercising and training activities for three years.

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