Friday, February 20, 2009

Milton Firefighters Get Training To Handle Horses

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mark Stephens had 15 years of experience as a Fulton County firefighter, had battled white-hot industrial fires, dealt with life-and-death medical emergencies and spills of nasty toxic chemicals, but nothing prepared him for this.

Stephens, now a captain for the Milton Fire Department, was facing a skittish, head-tossing 1,300-pound horse on the loose. “This was brand-new,” he said. “I knew nothing about horses. I was definitely outside my comfort zone.”

Most of the city’s 53 firefighters came from urban areas, but semi-rural Milton is home to 100 or more horse farms. And sometimes the horses get out. When they do, they can pose a hazard to themselves, and especially to traffic, which can be heavy even in far north Fulton County.
So the city Department of Public Safety sent three firefighters who own horses to a Kentucky horse park sponsoring a clinic about how to handle the animals when they’re scared, and how to help them when they’re hurt. Those men trained the rest of the department and formed the area’s first Large Animal Rescue Team. The city has agreements to help recover escaped horses in Cherokee and Forsyth counties.
Crystal Matusevich, who owns nine horses, said if you have horses, they will eventually get loose by being too smart for their own good, such as opening a stall door by accident or by human error. “It’s not frequent, but at some point things happen,” she said, adding that she can envision several scenarios where people might call the team. “For regular people who aren’t used to handling horses, they may not know what to do. … We have a lot of private barns, and the owners may not be present or they’re gone to lunch or running an errand, then neighbors or the public has someone to call.”

Stephens said the idea started soon after the department was launched in May 2007, when a resident stopped by a fire station and posed the question: What would you do if you had an accident involving a horse trailer? Or a barn on fire? “We didn’t have an answer,” Fire Lt. Bill Bourn said.
After the trip to Kentucky, the department set up each shift with one of the three trained experts on duty. It has a trailer with equipment dedicated to extricating horses from mud, ravines, and damaged trailers.

One of the first things the firefighters learned was that horses can sense whether somebody’s scared of them, so they’ve had two training sessions to familiarize firefighters with horses.
“We’ve seen different comfort levels,” Stephens said.

Laura Bentley, president of the Georgia Hunter Jumper Association, an equestrian competition group, said horses can be intimidating to people who don’t deal with them a lot.
“The first thing a horse does when it gets out is panic because it knows it’s loose, and a panicked 1,200 pound animal is not good,” she said. “They’re very unpredictable. The best thing you can do is get a horse person.” Bentley said horse owners are glad the department is trying to be horse-friendly. “We need to work together,” she said. “Some of these show horses and sport horses cost $100,000. And if a horse causes a head-on collision, the owner can be liable.”

The association helped organize a training session, and it also donated a special sling to the department.
Much of department’s equipment is homemade. For example, if the firefighters need to put blinders on a horse or protect its eyes, they use a bra (size 34B for a thoroughbred). The straps fit over the horse’s ears and head, and the cups block its vision. Baby socks stuffed with cotton make good earplugs. Another tip: Bring peppermints, horses love peppermints.

The team has been called out a handful of times, including one time to help lift a sick horse in Forsyth County, and once when six broke free. Bourn said he expects the unit to be called out more and more as people become aware of its existence. In the past, horse owners had to call the state Department of Agriculture or their local veterinarian.

Police officers haven’t received the training and are advised to call the firefighters when horses run wild, City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said.

“The majority of the police are just like we were, unfamiliar,” Stephens said. “I think everybody in public safety is glad we have that training and those tools, which we didn’t before. We didn’t have options before. We had to invent the wheel as we went.”

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