How one firefighter’s harrowing experience prompted him to spearhead a community project to supply oxygen masks for dogs and cats.
Firefighters raced to the scene of a house fire in rural Georgia. When they arrived, the owner was desperately trying to reach his two dogs. “I know exactly where they are,” he hollered frantically to the first responders. Firefighter Erik Mork and his partner entered the burning building to search for the dogs, and both were exactly where the man said they would be. But it was too late. The firefighters weren’t able to save the animals.
“Is she gone?” the man asked when Erik carried one of the dogs out. Pulling off his mask, trying to figure out what to say and not knowing what to do, Erik said, “Yes, I’m sorry, sir.” The man took the dog into his arms, went into the woods and cried so hard it bothered Erik to the point that he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Both dogs died that night in a fire that destroyed what mattered most to this man – his only two friends in the world.
Firefighters save lives. That, along with battling blazes, is the main focus of their job. But after this experience, Erik re-evaluated what this means to him. “As a public servant, I am supposed to help, but that night on the back roads of Georgia, there wasn’t anything I could do,” he says. “What I realized is that we’re not just rescuing people. We are trying to protect their reason for living.” Erik doesn’t know if having the right equipment would have saved that man’s dogs, but one thing was certain: he never again wanted to be in the position where no such options were available. In order for emergency oxygen masks to do the most good, the masks must securely fit their patients, and those used for humans are not anatomically correct for animals. So Erik started motivating his community of Cherokee County, Georgia to invest in emergency kits with oxygen masks specifically designed for animals. Thanks to his efforts, local veterinary clinics, businesses and individuals came together to raise funds for this important cause.
“It makes a huge difference in the odds an animal will survive a trauma if lifesaving oxygen can be administered at the scene prior to veterinary assistance,” says Laura Johnson, senior vet tech at the Riverstone Veterinary Clinic. Laura adds that this affordable equipment is easy to use, and has already saved the lives of animals the clinic has treated, such as service dogs and those working for the local police department that were injured in the line of duty. Dogs suffering from heatstroke also need oxygen, Laura points out. During my visit to the clinic, Laura showed me the different equipment sizes and demonstrated how the masks work by placing one on her employers’ Dalmatian, Sarah, and another on a kitten named Jasper.
The ultimate goal of this initiative is to have at least one animal oxygen kit available per fire truck in Cherokee County. To date, over $900 has been raised, and 30 oxygen masks have either been purchased or donated to help save the lives of animals in traumatic situations. Each kit contains a small, medium and large mask. Half of the kits came from Invisible Fencing by Peachtree, which operates a pet oxygen mask donation program called Project Breathe – those who wish to donate to the Cherokee County initiative can do so through peachtree.invisiblefence.com.
“If a firefighter is going to try to save the life of someone’s animal, there should be a way to provide the animal with the oxygen he will need,” Erik says. “Ultimately, you have to put yourself in the place of the person who has suffered a devastating loss. To be able to hand someone their living, breathing animal, which for some people means the world to them – that’s where the healing begins.”