This is a guest blog from Eric Thompson, BISSELL Pet Foundation’s Executive Director of Animal Incident Management.
It was August 8, 2023, when the island of Maui experienced its most catastrophic wildland fire in history. As with all disasters and times of crises where people are impacted, pets and animals also find themselves at the forefront of the tragedy. Whether it’s being separated from their family, the loss of their home, the scorching of their environment, or the simple need for food and water, people’s needs are also animals’ needs. This is where the Animal Incident Management (AIM) team, a BISSELL Pet Foundation national initiative, can provide support and resources to impacted animals and the people who care for them.
In partnership with BISSELL Pet Foundation, ASAR (Animal Search and Rescue) Training and Response can bring AIM disaster mitigation and response resources in times of need. This was the case on August 10, as the Big Island of Hawaii started assisting Maui with animal support resources. ASAR has an existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Big Island to help in times of disaster by activating the entire AIM structure of resources. The Big Island partners introduced AIM to Maui Humane Society (MHS), the animal authority having jurisdiction after the fire. They immediately reached out for help. As the AIM Executive Director, I deployed to Maui to serve as the MHS Disaster Liaison Officer. I worked with local Emergency Management to organize the animal branch in the incident management system, acted as a liaison with government resources and agencies, and managed non-government resources, offering to help during the response phase. Incredible nonprofits from all over the country wanted to help, but there had to be organization throughout the process. I was charged with creating it.
Over the initial response, I worked in collaboration with the amazing staff and volunteers at MHS. They selflessly showed up every day to take care of displaced pets and supported the medical needs of the animals that were recovered from the impact area. I cannot begin to tell you of the heartbreak and individual stories that will be with me forever: the burned cat that refused to give up, the families coming through the doors of MHS desperately seeking pets, and the pictures posted of the missing humans.
Like in every disaster, the needs of the community continued to evolve. My role transitioned from Disaster Liaison Officer to Field Operations Lead as teams began the search and rescue effort. I led the animal search and rescue (ASAR) resources into the burn area to start the recovery efforts of live and injured animals. We all wanted so badly to reunite pets with their families. While AIM filled many roles and assignments during this disaster, the most vital cooperative mission was to provide happy reunifications and somber closure for those families with impacted pets. We did both many times over.
I am honored to have worked with the people and animals on the island of Maui. Every disaster leaves a small remembrance in the hearts of the responders. For me, that piece is yet to rest. There is still work to be done. I will be working with MHS and the local government to create a comprehensive disaster plan to support them in the future. Through policies, procedures, and training, Maui will be even stronger and sustainable should they face another disaster. I will likely be returning to the island in the next several months. By the time I return, the burn zone will be bare, and the rebuilding will begin.
BISSELL Pet Foundation’s AIM works on disaster and crisis management and planning issues in many other jurisdictions. For more information about AIM, please see www.animalincidentmanagement.com.