In addition to hoses, ladders, breathing apparatus, flashlights and wrenches, Dare County firefighters will have one other piece of equipment at their disposal: resuscitation kits for pets.

The Coastal Humane Society launched a program, Operation Fresh Air for Pets, to provide all 14 Dare County Volunteer Fire Departments — and Corolla Fire and Rescue and Carova Fire and Rescue — with kits specifically for animals. The SurgiVet Pet Oxygen Mask kits have multiple sized masks that can fit animals large or small — from kittens to horses, one local firefighter put it — and were selected because of their cost, performance record and ease of use.

“Lives come first, that’s in the fire service and emergency services, saving lives is top priority,” Colington Fire Department chief Glenn Rainey says. “Pets are a close second. Most people think of their pets as family, as well. We do our best to save pets. … This equipment that they’ve given us will make that job a lot easier.”

The program is a tribute to Barbara Britt, one of the founders of the Coastal Humane Society and who worked tirelessly on behalf of pets and pet owners before she passed away in February 2017.

“We’re really doing this project for Barbara, closing the circle,” says CHS member Patti Bourexis. “We feel this is a good tribute to all the work she did.”

Britt’s son, Jon, has been a volunteer firefighter with the Duck Fire Department for 27 years. He says that his mother recognized the need for equipment tailored to animals.

“I think it’s a huge deal for fire departments, for Coastal Humane to be able to do this,” Britt says. “To get all the fire departments what they need to do this and to get the training in it. To give us the chance to help animals caught in fires, it’s amazing.”

Asked what his mother might say about the program, Britt chuckled and says, “She’d say, 'It’s about time we did this'.”

Bourexis and program coordinator Sandy Cheeks says they wanted to equip firehouses with pet kits for years. But older kits cost approximately $200 apiece, and since the Humane Society operates solely on fundraisers and donations, they were unable to raise enough money to purchase and to widely distribute them. The pet kits that CHS researched and chose for this program cost $65 each and are more versatile. Much of the money raised to finance the program came from the annual Wags and Whiskers fundraiser.

The Humane Society initially intended to provide kits to all fire departments in Dare County, but when firefighters in Corolla and Carova, in Currituck, learned of the initiative, they reached out and expressed interest. The CHS was able to supply them, as well.

“The nice thing about being a small group is you can make up your own rules,” Cheeks says. “If you want to stretch the boundaries, nobody says, ‘you can’t do that.’”

The CHS mission is to promote healthy pets and ensure that “no owner is forced to give up a pet because of a financial hardship.” The group’s primary programs are low-cost spaying and neutering of dogs and cats, pet vaccinations, emergency medical assistance for pet owners faced with major medical costs, and a pet food bank, run in conjunction with Dare County Social Services. Local veterinarians have been instrumental in the spaying/neutering and vaccination programs, Cheeks and Bourexis says.

The Colington firehouse has hosted a couple of vaccination clinics, and Rainey says they’ve been very well received. Firefighters enjoy playing and interacting with pets, he says, and the clinics showcase the firehouse and provide people with the opportunity to meet firemen outside of a crisis. The department’s work with the CHS led to the group reaching out to him about Operation Fresh Air.

“I was basically a point contact,” Rainey says. “I didn’t come up with this idea. I don’t want any credit for it. The real heroes in this program are the folks in the Coastal Humane Society. They made it happen. It was their vision and we’re just happy to be a part of it.”

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