Pet rescues part of the job for area firefighters

Woodstock Fire Rescue District firefighters demonstrate Monday how they could use an oxygen mask to help resuscitate a unconscious dog at the Woodstock Fire Rescue District headquarters in Woodstock.
Woodstock Fire Rescue District firefighters demonstrate Monday how they could use an oxygen mask to help resuscitate a unconscious dog at the Woodstock Fire Rescue District headquarters in Woodstock.

It might be a pet owner’s worst nightmare – a house fire where they are able to escape, but unable to get their animals out safely before emergency responders arrive.

The smoke detector may sound, prompting the resident to immediately check the home for flames and smoke. Calling 911 and evacuating those inside would most commonly follow.

Some pets easily escape by following their owners. Others often scurry and hide, or the fire will be so severe the owner has no chance of getting them out without risking his or her own safety.

“People are attached to their pets and look at these animals as members of the family,” said Ralph Webster, chief of the Woodstock Fire Rescue District. “If the pet is your loved one, once your family is safe, your attention immediately turns to saving that animal.”

Emergency crews understand the bond between pets and their masters, but leaving the rescue efforts to the professionals can mean the difference between life and death, local fire experts agree. Armed with equipment and the proper training, firefighters will work to save pets whenever, and however, they can.

Woodstock fire rescue personnel save about 10 pets a year, Webster said. That includes cats and dogs during house fires, among other incidents.

When fighting fires, life safety remains the top priority, with crews first focusing on getting all parties involved evacuated from the home, he said. Once everyone is accounted for and safe, firefighters then focus on controlling and extinguishing the fire.

“We know how much these people care for their animals, but life safety and extinguishing the fire are the most important things,” Webster said. “You cannot go back in. You have to let us know you have an animal, and then let us handle our priorities.”

Oftentimes, the animals escape on their own or hide somewhere inside the home. In some cases, they will be waiting by the doorway when emergency responders arrive.

“Pets are pretty smart in their own right,” said Ken Caudle, chief of the Huntley Fire Protection District. “We try and treat them like children: They are going to get out on their own or go and hide. When we get there, we need to know if anyone, including animals, is still in the house.”

Fire officials say it’s critical that pet owners fight the urge to run back into the home to try to save their pet, and be patient with firefighters, who are dealing with a multitude of situations.

“If we don’t seem to be acting fast enough or seem concerned enough, it tends to put people in a tailspin,” Webster said. “You have to understand that you cannot go back in.”

Fire Chief Tony Huemann of the McHenry Township Fire Protection District agreed.

“You can’t put your life at risk to save your pets,” he said. “Just let us know where they normally stay, and we will try and get them out without putting firefighters’ lives at risk.”

Aiding local departments with pet rescues is specialized equipment, such as oxygen masks, that can be used on animals. Among other local departments, Woodstock, Huntley and McHenry Township are equipped with pet oxygen masks.

Many departments received the masks free as a part of Project Breathe through the Invisible Fence Brand of Northwest Illinois, which is based in Crystal Lake.

The initiative is part of a national campaign to equip every fire station in Canada, the U.S. and United Kingdom with pet oxygen masks. The group recently donated more than 250 masks to the Chicago Fire Department.

“It makes a big difference,” said Joyce Brennan, owner of Invisible Fence Brand of Northwest Illinois. “All these departments have the masks and training to deal with the general emergency care of a pet.”

Rescue efforts reach well beyond cats and dogs, and in rural parts of the county, also include rescue personnel having to handle horse emergencies.

Many departments also have received training for barn fires where horses are involved and vehicle accidents that involve horse trailers, Caudle said.

Some of the more interesting pet rescue efforts have included dogs being trapped on frozen bodies of water, cats getting stuck in HVAC units and even canines get their paws caught in the unlikeliest of places, such as radiators, Webster said.

“Each incident is significant to the pet owners, and we are sensitive to that,” Huemann said. “We strive to do everything we can to save them.”

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