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Outfitting Firefighters to Save Pets' Lives

The Peninsula Humane Society wants to provide all San Mateo County fire departments with oxygen masks to help resuscitate dogs and cats.

October 20, 2003|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

The Chihuahua was out cold after he was pulled from a house fire in the city of San Mateo several months ago.

But when Burlingame Assistant Fire Chief Ken Musso hooked up a mask to the dog's snout and pumped in oxygen, the dog regained consciousness.

Now, the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA has begun an effort to outfit all San Mateo County fire departments with a set of masks -- in four sizes -- to help resuscitate dogs and cats suffering from smoke inhalation.

The unusual program, launched almost a year ago in Burlingame as a pilot project, has begun gaining nationwide attention.

"I've heard from every region -- the Midwest, the East -- fire personnel and animal-welfare workers, and a little girl in the East Bay who wanted to work with her local animal shelter," said Scott Delucchi, spokesman for the humane society.

In all, the humane society raised $3,000 to pay for 16 sets of masks to be carried on fire trucks or in fire officials' cars.

Besides Burlingame, the humane society has distributed masks to four other communities in San Mateo County -- Pacifica, Redwood City, South San Francisco and the city of San Mateo -- and plans to present masks to the Millbrae and Menlo Park city councils in November.

"We've all said if each city uses it one time a year, it's a huge success," Delucchi said. "An animal is saved, the family is grateful."

The idea for acquiring the clear plastic masks -- the same ones used by veterinarians when animals are anesthetized for surgery -- came from Ken White, who heads the humane society.

White, who previously worked at the Arizona Humane Society, said some of the Phoenix fire engines carry the pet masks, although it wasn't a widespread practice.

When he mentioned the idea to Musso and another fire official at a humane society auxiliary fundraising dinner almost two years ago, they were enthusiastic about it, recalled Barbara Nagata, former humane society board member.

But when nothing happened, she became frustrated. Finally, she called Musso -- he's a neighbor -- and got his wife, Ann, an animal lover and the Burlingame city clerk and fire department spokeswoman, involved.

"She got it going," Nagata said.

"I was really thrilled it finally went through," she said. "I think I donated enough for one set [$200]. My vet donated too."

Musso, who responds to fires in Burlingame and Hillsborough, began carrying the masks in his car.

About three to four months ago when he was monitoring calls in neighboring San Mateo, he heard a report of a structure fire and one small dog down. He got on his radio and offered to bring the masks.

When he arrived, a humane society worker was holding the pet.

"He was a little limp Chihuahua," Musso recalled. "We worked together. We hooked him up to the mask with a bag of oxygen, and eventually the little dog came around."

Over the years, when he's responded to similar situations, he's placed a human mask up to the dog's face, hoping to get at least some oxygen into the nostrils. But it doesn't work as well as a pet mask that seals over the face.

Delucchi said he began taking daily calls about the masks after the program was publicized in a national dog magazine and a statewide newsletter for firefighters.

One of those recent callers, Dan Smith, a rancher and member of Volunteer Company 36 in Mariposa County, likes the idea of carrying masks to fires, saying just about everyone in rural Hunter's Valley, about 18 miles from Mariposa, has at least one dog and one cat.

But he asks: What about masks for horses?

"We have more horses in the valley than we do people," Smith said.

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