They say that timing is everything, and this statement could not have been more true on April 12, 2018. Something that happened that day led to one of the most difficult but rewarding accomplishments of my career.
At that time, I treated the K9 Officers for the Yarmouth Police department (YPD). One of the YPD canine handlers put me in touch with the head medic of the Cape Cod regional SWAT team, Jason Kahn, MD. Dr. Kahn is both an ER physician and a police officer – he’s pretty amazing. The SWAT team had recently started using dogs in shooting situations, so Dr. Kahn asked me if I would take part in a multiday course in May to train the new SWAT medics in K9 tactical emergency casualty care.
I met with Jake Berrick of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Dr. Kahn on April 12, 2018 to plan what I would teach. We ran through several scenarios – officer down and canine up, canine down and officer up, officer down and canine down. We planned heat stroke training and vehicle trauma. A training outline was created.
Just one hour after we left our lunch meeting, Officer Sean Gannon and his police K9 Officer Nero were both shot. Sean was fatally wounded and down, and the dog was also shot down. It took medics three hours to get into the house where Sean was shot, so the injured dog lay shot in the neck that whole time.
Dr. Kahn was there and got into the cruiser with Nero. According to the law, they could not put him in an ambulance. Officer Troy Perry is still haunted about having to make the decision to put Nero in the cruiser and not the ambulance. But he knew the law and he knew he could lose his EMT license if he broke it.
Nero had been muzzled, and was riding in the back seat of the cruiser with Dr. Kahn. Thankfully, Dr. Kahn had the medical knowledge to recognize that Nero’s airway was compromised. He later told me, “I took the muzzle off and softly asked Nero not to bite my face off.” That probably saved Nero's life. Just six hours prior, in our meeting, Dr. Khan had asked me when the muzzle should be taken off an injured dog, and I listed off all potential reasons, including when the airway is compromised.
The following week, Dr. Kahn was told in an email from the state lawyer that I could not train the SWAT medics, and we could not hold the class we had planned. The most unbelievable part: having me teach the class would be breaking the law.
Because of what happened with Officer Gannon and Nero, we collectively decided we had to change the law. That is how Nero's Law was born.
There were many obstacles to overcome while drafting Nero’s Law. Emergency service providers had legal, financial, operational and safety concerns about treating K9s. Some felt this might escalate to pet owners requesting ambulances for their personal pets.
Someone needed to take a deep dive into both the human medical, regulatory and legal side and do the same on the veterinary side, which is why this work has never been done before in Massachusetts. There were endless nights researching Massachusetts general laws, talking with lawyers, judges, MDs and legislators.
Lee Palmer, DVM, MS, DACVECC, NRAEMT-T, WEMT, CCRP, a board certified emergency and critical care veterinarian out of Alabama, gave me a lot of help. He provides training in K9 tactical emergency casualty care to law enforcement, so he has helped write this type of legislation in a number of other states. He sent me the bills from six different states. I took what I liked from each one and created a six page document, which Dr. Lee helped edit. It was trimmed to two pages by Rep Will Crocker prior to submission, and this is what became Nero’s Law. The main points are as follows:
- Allow for emergency transport of K9s. I left this vague on purpose, since Massachusetts has islands, so transportation may need to happen by air, water or land.
- Provide permission to medics to treat K9s. Pre-hospital care is the "golden hour.” Numerous veterinary studies show increased survival rates for emergencies if they are treated in the first hour. We are not giving a veterinary license away; we are simply allowing the medics to do what they are trained to do – keep the dog alive to get it to the vet.
- Protection for the medical provider. If they make a mistake trying to help, they won't lose their license.
- Make a plan for training the medics.
Sean Majoy, DVM, DACVECC, from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, is a member of our task team. He has done this training in the military and has a plan for Tufts to provide the training. He is currently deployed to Afghanistan, but will rejoin our task team when he returns.
I have since become the SWAT vet as well the Barnstable Police Department (BPD) vet. I've been awarded four different "challenge coins" from the ATF, the SWAT team and YPD. I have been in the field with the SWAT team for an active shooter situation where someone was shot and killed with the SWAT team. And I'm on call 24/7 for them by phone text or in the field. I love it. I am a proud American and do this all as a volunteer.
I know this legislation, especially the training, will save lives. What was a simple lunch conversation gave Dr. Kahn enough knowledge to make a lifesaving decision for Nero. These Medics are the best of the best. They already know the principles and they know their jobs - get the injured to the hospital alive. It doesn't take much training to convert that experience to the injured canine. And that is what this is all about. We will save police canines. And by doing that, we will save human lives.
My real motivation for making this legislation happen was to honor Sergeant Sean Gannon (he was posthumously promoted) and make his death serve a purpose. When I got really tired, I thought about making him proud. I pictured standing in front of a news conference and saying, “WE DID THIS.”
Sean was a friend – a work friend but a friend. I met his wife a week or two after he was killed when she brought the family pet in to see me. She smiled and told me she felt like we were lifelong friends since Sean would always talk about me at home. She and I are good friends now. I get emotional writing this, but I feel we will do right by Sean. I built a memorial to Sean that stands in front of VCA Hyannis Animal Hospital, but I hope Nero’s Law will serve as an even more meaningful and lasting tribute to his memory.
“Nero's Law in MA will allow for emergency transport of K9 officers and will provide permission to treat them.”
Update: Massachusetts Legislature Passes Nero’s Law
Thanks to the tireless work of VCA Hyannis Animal Hospital Medical Director Kevin Smith, VMD, a bill known as Nero’s law was recently passed in Massachusetts, ensuring law enforcement officers' K-9 partners receive life-saving medical attention and transport if they are injured in the line of duty.
The bill was a labor of love for Dr. Smith, who previously shared its background and progress on VCA Voice. The bill was inspired by Nero, a K9 officer shot in the line of duty in April 2018. Although he was in desperate need of emergency care, paramedics on the scene were legally unable to provide medical assistance or transport Nero by ambulance for care. Instead, he was brought by police cruiser to the nearest veterinary hospital where he thankfully received the life-saving care he needed.
“Police K-9s were officers right up until when they were injured,
then all of a sudden they were dogs,” says Dr. Smith, who is also Nero’s
Nero’s Law allows for the emergency transport of K9s, gives permission to medics to treat them, and provides protection for the medical provider so they will not lose their license for helping. Additionally, the bill finally gives Dr. Smith legal freedom to create and implement a plan for training medics on emergency veterinary care.
For the indispensable services they provide to the Massachusetts police force and the communities they serve, K9s deserve prompt and professional emergency care. If Massachusetts K9 officers could speak, we know they would thank Dr. Smith and all of VCA Associates, community members and elected officials who supported Nero’s Law. VCA is proud to have relationships with over 90 K9 units across the country, providing the routine and emergency care to the working dogs who keep us safe.