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June 13, 2011

Project Breathe's oxygen masks aim to save pets

By Carol L. MacCabe
Chicago Daily Herald

CHICAGO — The number of pets who die annually in fires (mostly from smoke inhalation) isn’t an official statistic kept by the U.S. Fire Administration.

"When we tried to learn how many succumb, we got anywhere from 40,000 to 150,000," said Christina Szmurlo, Community Outreach Specialist for Invisible Fence Brand. "Either number is way too many."

Most emergency responders are unequipped with tools to save animals that might be unconscious, but still savable.They lack specially designed pet oxygen masks.

Working with a medical supply company, Invisible Fence Brand has been equipping fire departments with pet oxygen masks at no cost for more than three years.In April 2010, the initiative was named Project Breathe.

"This is a nationwide initiative for us," Szmurlo said. "We want everybody across the United States to have them."

Each kit has three mask sizes:small, medium and large.This gives the ability to handle dogs and cats of all sizes and even gerbils and snakes.Fire departments are eligible to receive one kit per station. The kits, which cost approximately $60 each, are free to the fire departments.

"The mask goes over the animal’s snout," Szmurloexplained. "A human oxygen mask is flatter and goes over the face; it’s not able to cover the snout to give enough oxygen."

The masks have a rubber seal on them to create an airtight seal around the animal’s snout.The first responder can hold the mask on the pet and bring him back to consciousness. First responders can provide lifesaving support until veterinary care can be obtained.

"There is a huge difference with this specialized mask," Walter added. "With a human mask, the oxygen concentration isn’t as high since most of the oxygen just blows at the animal’s face."

Within the kit, in addition to the masks, there is tubing to connect to the oxygen tanks that are already on the fire rigs.There is also a leash and an information sheet with directions on how to use the mask.

"In April 2010, the city of Chicago received 235 kits — every rig in the city has one," Szmurlo said.

In a Chicago fire just a few days after this donation, three of four animals were saved because of the oxygen mask.

In the past two years, North Aurora, Pingree Grove, Hoffman Estates, Hanover Park, Aurora, Des Plaines, and the West Chicago Fire Protection District are among the suburbs that have received kits.

The most recent recipient is the Palatine Rural Fire Department, which received two kits in September 2010 at an open house.One kit is on their ambulance and the other is on their fire truck.

"Everyone here had training after the donation," said Amy Jo Walter, firefighter/paramedic and public education officer. "It’s a basic unit, so it’s not too complicated.They come with a card with great instructions."

While human resuscitations are done all the time, animal resuscitation is a new endeavor.The kits have already shown their value.

"A few months back, there was a fire in Inverness," Walter said. "We were able to save a kitty-cat by using an oxygen mask on him."

Invisible Fence Brand covers 100 percent of the cost for the kits.A community member, volunteer firefighter or fire chief can contact the company for information about the kit.Typically, one kit is donated for every first response vehicle in the fire department, so that every station in the department is covered.

"We just need an ‘OK’ from the Fire Chief that they need and want the equipment," Szmurlo said. "Once we have the ‘OK’, we move forward with a donation date."

Once a donation date is set, Invisible Fence Brand staff members bring out their own dogs to give a demonstration of how to use the masks.This may be part of an open house or yearly training session.During the training session, fire fighters learn the proper fit for the masks and get comfortable with using the masks on the dogs.

In 2011, major cities like Houston, Denver, Miami and Las Vegas have all become part of Project Breathe.More than 13,000 masks have been donated throughout the United States.

"If someone is interested in making a donation, there is a place on our website to do so," said Szmurlo. "We’ll work with groups that are trying to raise money for oxygen masks, too."

"We are very thankful that we have these masks when we need them," Walter concluded. We’re lucky and pleased to be part of this great program."

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