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Longtime EMT trains to become canine medic

Bill Sirianni said his encounters with injured animals have been few, with outcomes ranging from good to devastating

By Mary Pickels

IRWIN, Pa. — Bill Sirianni has responded to numerous incidents in his 10 years as an EMT, using his training to help people who have suffered medical emergencies or been injured in accidents or fires.

On occasion, he finds himself helping four-footed patients as well.

Sirianni is on staff with Mt. Pleasant EMS. He also is a canine medic.

An animal lover who once owned a black Labrador from a puppy to age 17, he hopes to soon adopt a German shepherd.

“If I get one, I want to put it through training to be a search and rescue dog,” he says.

Sirianni, 29, completed a canine medic course at Westmoreland County Community College several years ago.

His primary inspiration at the time, he says, was to be able to assist if the borough police department’s K-9 officer ever was injured.

“But as I took the class, I thought that this could be used for (any animal),” Sirianni says.

Dr. Harvey R. Bendix, operator of Norwin Veterinary Hospital, has taught a canine medic course at WCCC for several years.

The four-hour class covers basic first aid, including CPR techniques, IV insertion and treatment of poisoning. Bendix sometimes travels to area communities to teach groups of first responders. He estimates hundreds of people have completed the class in recent years.

“It was originally designed to teach K-9 handlers. We decided to expand to first responders,” Bendix says. A medical background is helpful, but not necessary, he says.

“It’s not a course for someone who says, ‘I love animals.’ ... You have to be able to see medical trauma,” Bendix says.

Sirianni says his encounters with injured animals have been few, with outcomes ranging from good to devastating.

A pit bull puppy injured in an October accident in Bullskin did not survive, despite numerous attempts to help. The dog was traveling with the driver of a tractor-trailer that crashed. It suffered severe injuries.

A quick physical exam determined the dog was going into shock, Sirianni says. He and fellow EMT and canine medic Jacob Keck tried to help the dog, who was transported to Mt. Pleasant Animal Hospital and then taken by ambulance to AVETS in Monroeville, where she died.

Sirianni says he performed CPR on the dog and brought her back twice in the ambulance, as Keck drove.

“I was doing chest compressions and I had an oxygen mask on her. ... She was a cute little thing,” he says.

First responders are aware, Sirianni says, that many people consider their pets members of their families. Rescue workers also have to prepare for an injured or scared animal to bite or scratch out of fear.

“In that case, the dog was hurt so badly it wasn’t trying to bite anybody,” Sirianni says.

Keck, 18, says he took the course in an effort to enhance his EMS knowledge.

“That was the first time I’ve been on scene with an animal so badly injured,” he says.

A volunteer firefighter, Keck recently participated in an effort to release a horse trapped in mud for several hours. Ultimately, a County Animal Response Team, often summoned to help injured or trapped farm animals, was able to assist the horse.

The incident gave Keck the opportunity to practice animal rescue skills, he says. Equipment used to assist injured animals is similar to that used for humans, Keck says, but often is smaller in size, comparable to what might be used for infants and children.

Also similar to children, animals must rely on those assisting them to determine their injuries.

“They can’t advocate what their problem is. You can’t ask them, ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Keck says.

Bendix’s students practice lifesaving skills on an animal mannequin, including mouth-to-snout resuscitation, splinting of broken limbs and induced vomiting.

First responders learn to stock their ambulances or personal vehicles with supplies to immediately begin assisting animals.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, one in four more pets would survive if it received even one first-aid technique before getting emergency vet care.

Becky Lauffer, WCCC coordinator of emergency medical services and health care, continuing education, says students do not receive certification beyond the attendance certificate Bendix provides.

The Department of Health, oversight body for EMTs and paramedics, does not issue continuing education credits for the class as it applies specifically to animal care, she says.

Numerous area police officers, firefighters and veterinary technicians, EMTs, along with pet owners, groomers and animal day care operators, have completed canine medic training in recent years.

Mark Griffin, 71, of Penn Run, Indiana County, a retired Pennsylvania State Police detective from the Greensburg barracks, took Bendix’s course after he began volunteering with the Indiana County Humane Society.

Although he’d never owned pets — he has since adopted cats and dogs — Griffin wanted to do something to give back, and found himself walking pit bulls.

“I learned what sweet dogs they were. I saw a notice in the newspaper (for the canine medic class). I thought, since I’m walking the dogs, I should take this course in case something happens,” he says.

Griffin says he often recommends the course, and believes it would be beneficial to police officers working patrol.

“I was so impressed with how knowledgeable and how thorough (Bendix) was,” he says.

“The course highlights a wide variety of emergency situations a first responder may encounter. ... There are things they can do in the field that may improve an animal’s chance of survival,” Bendix says.

“In some cases, you are not able to bring them back. But you are always rewarded when it works,” he says.

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