“With the stands packed full of people they were going to have to put this animal down,” says Searles, who is vice president of transportation for Smithfield Foods’ hog production division. He shuddered to think how euthanizing the horse would be done humanely and without leaving a negative impact on those in attendance. The solution was an “ah-ha” moment that would subsequently serve as a solution for an animal welfare problem that everyone agrees needs to be addressed.
“They pulled out onto the track an animal response vehicle that almost looked like an ambulance,” he says. Once the vehicle arrived at the scene, race officials strategically draped curtains to shield the unfortunate euthanizing of the animal from the spectators.
“It almost looked like it was a medical response to what was going on down on the race track,” Searles says. Luckily, what started as a gruesome accident ended with the least possible negative impact for the animal and the spectators.
Too often, accidents involving livestock trucks on highways and roadways result in chaotic scenes that are traumatic for fellow commuters while creating unacceptable animal welfare scenarios.
“It’s no time for a rodeo. This is not the time to get a bunch of cowboys out there,” Searles says of accident-scene footage that too often is the lead story in many local news outlets.
“So, we came up with the idea of setting up our response vehicles in a similar manner,” he says, including providing the proper safety equipment for the responders and the animals. It was obvious that the approach used by officials at many horse tracks when animals are mortally wounded could apply to improve responses to accidents involving livestock.
Smithfield partnered with Jennifer Woods, a livestock handling expert based in Alberta, Canada, to inform and educate emergency responders on the best methods to humanely and safely work with livestock at the scene of an accident. Woods first developed a livestock emergency response course more than 20 years ago and has trained more than 10,000 people.
The approach has signaled a change in the industry’s response by first changing the mindset of all the stakeholders and responders to making the priority the welfare of the animals, not how to ensure how to get them to market, regardless of their condition.
Educating, training and providing the needed equipment to protect the animals and the people dealing with accident scenes was the goal in hopes of shedding the best light possible in what might otherwise be a chaotic and traumatizing experience for everyone involved.
The biggest part of improving responses to livestock accidents was a campaign to go county by county, in communities where Smithfield trucks frequently traveled and provide education and information-based training for first responders to live-haul accidents. Initially the training was conducted for scenarios involving turkeys and hogs, which were prominent in the geographical area.
Part of the training involved simulating an overturned trailer using an old vehicle, “to give first responders a better idea of everything that was involved in extracting animals from a truck,” Searles says, adding that the program includes training truck drivers as well.
Smithfield now maintains five of the response units in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia while some units used to respond to needs of the company’s Missouri operation are somewhat smaller. Their size depends on the market and expected needs, ranging from repurposed delivery vehicles to tractor trailers.
“We’ve used everything from old Frito-Lay fifth wheel trucks to a couple of pull-behinds,” Searles says of the trailers, the first of which was 28-ft. long and fully equipped.
Woods estimates that there are now well over 40 trailers available across the industry, adding that the beef industry is falling behind in its efforts. In Smithfield’s 2016 Sustainability report Woods praises the company’s progress: “No other company in the world is as prepared to respond to motor vehicle accidents involving livestock as Smithfield.” Adding that the pork company is “the standard for the industry in live-haul emergency response.”
As more companies have adopted emergency response programs, “We’ve definitely seen the reward in more efficient responses, decreased losses financially and decreased loss of animals,” Woods said during a presentation at the North American Meat Institute’s 2017 Animal Care and Handling Conference.
While Smithfield, and the livestock industry, have placed more emphasis on the best practices of transporting animals, accident rates have declined since 2010, thanks to improved trucking equipment and increased training of drivers and the ability of companies to monitor and measure the performance of those drivers. “The ultimate goal is to not have these incidents at all,” Searles says, but when they do occur, “to be able to respond and respond well.”
Informing first responders plays a big role in getting the needed people and equipment to the scene of an accident. Arming them with a list of industry-based responders is an important first step.
Smithfield’s response teams work not only with its own truck drivers, but also with other companies in the pork industry and occasionally with incidents involving other species. “We all try to help each other,” Searles says. “We’ve got the units set up in the densest areas and the highest traffic areas.”
As part of its response plan, if one of the team members receives a call notifying them of an incident, they are trained to contact and mobilize the nearest unit and get the equipment and the right people headed toward the scene as soon as possible.
According to Smithfield’s 2016 Sustainability report, between 80,000 and 90,000 truckloads of company-owned hogs are transported from farms to processing plants. About 60 percent of those loads are hauled in company-owned trucks. When an accident occurs during the transport of these animals, the company’s goal is to arrive on the scene within an hour, according to the report. But, response times depend on the location of the accident and can range anywhere from 20 minutes if it occurs, say on Interstate 40 in Warsaw (North Carolina) to a couple of hours if there is an incident on the eastern shore of North Carolina.
Equipment on board
Woods told attendees at the Animal Care and Handling Conference that incorporating an emergency vehicle into a company’s program should include: the trailer itself; training; standard operating procedures (SOPs); and initial aid programs.
Woods, who has responded to plenty of accident scenes herself, says while the trailer itself and its supplies are important, a 28-ft. pull-behind trailer like Smithfield’s is overkill for many companies.
“You can start really basic,” Woods says, adding that a cargo trailer about 12-ft. long that can accommodate hauling panels is a suitable starting place and repurposed cattle trailers are a small-scale option as well. It’s helpful, but not required to be covered, she said, and depending on the situation, portable loading ramps are helpful, but she prefers ground-load trailers for emergency situations where negotiating equipment on a highway can be challenging. As for the necessities most useful on a response vehicle, Woods has developed a checklist for equipment needed by first responders and things needed for the trailer (See “Partial Checklist,” Page 51).
A typical response includes a driver of the response vehicle as well as two people from the livestock transportation group to move trucks at the scene or to drive another vehicle to transport hogs from the scene. Other responders include local hog farmers, which sometimes includes contract growers in the area and often volunteer fire department members. “Typically, if we get them there and get them the right equipment we can get a lot of help,” Searles says.
A key role in the response chain of command is the person responsible for communication with everyone at the scene, which includes first responders, picture-and-video-taking public citizens, commuters and members of the media.
Keeping everyone informed ideally includes assigning a person trained in dealing with the media and the public to help control photographs and video footage of an accident scene and limiting any shocking images that could show up on the evening news or on social media.
Woods reiterates that the communication part of any accident scene is critical and often, traumatized drivers of the livestock vehicle involved in the accident aren’t the best candidates to speak for the company that owns the animals. She says a designated spokesperson should at the least tell reporters or curious bystanders and even public-facing first responders: “Right now our focus is taking care of the animals. When management or someone from the company gets here we will have a statement- but right now we need to take care of the animals.”
“Do the right thing, do it to the best of your ability and in most cases most people who see what you’re doing are going to respond in a positive way,” Searles says.
As far as frequency and the demand and need for incidents requiring a response vehicle, he says the incidents occur “not even monthly; it’s something less than that.”
Cost and maintenance
In terms of cost, one of the vehicles’ more significant investments are the generators, which must be maintained. Otherwise, costs include the supplies that are on board, many of which are commonplace in most live animal operations. Searles says it isn’t uncommon to be able to find an old trailer that could be repurposed as a response vehicle for as little as $2,000.
Woods pointed out that as part of SOPs for an emergency response vehicle, maintaining the equipment on the trailers and ensuring they are constantly stocked with supplies that are in working order is critical. Accessibility to the trailer is also critical as Woods’ research indicates that most accidents occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. and dispatching time is critical when hooking a trailer up to a truck to get to the scene of an accident.
“What we’re trying to do is show people that we are in the animal care business and that’s what we do for a living,” Searles says.
“In these worst-of situations,” he says, “we want to show that we respond to those animals in a way that gives the best possible care to those animals.”