Two Midlands women put pet-saving kits in firefighters’ hands

Pets are often rescued from burning homes. This kitten was rescued from a Port Royal apartment fire in 2014
Pets are often rescued from burning homes. This kitten was rescued from a Port Royal apartment fire in 2014 Beaufort Fire Department

Firefighters in Sumter County will soon have additional capability to save family pets when responding to house fires thanks to the determined efforts of two South Carolina women.

The Pet Oxygen Kit Project came about after Mary Ellen Tobias of Blythewood was touched by watching a local news report of a fire which had completely engulfed a Columbia home in June 2014.

“Four firemen came out of the house with a kitten; it was unconscious, but they resuscitated it,” Tobias said.

Moved to tears by the scene of men dressed in heavy firefighting gear reviving the cat, she set out to find out more about the oxygen masks they had used to save the kitten.

She found out that not many fire departments had the masks, which are part of the Wag’N 02 Fur Life Kit.

The kits include three sizes of oxygen masks, tubes to connect the masks to oxygen equipment, educational materials, a lead for restraining animals, additional supporting materials and a carrying bag.

“The masks will fit cats, dogs, birds, ferrets, any kind of pet,” she said.

Soon she and her friend, Nena Sinclair of Columbia, embarked on a mission to provide the life-saving kits to every fire department in the Palmetto State.

The animal-loving duo, with the help of friends, family and concerned businesses, soon raised enough money to buy more than a dozen kits for the Columbia Fire Department. Within a few months they supplied the Fairfield County Fire Department with 18 kits.

To keep the project going, Tobias and Sinclair formed Pet Oxygen Kit Project Inc. as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit corporation.

The number of kits the nonprofit has helped supply to fire departments throughout the state has since reached more than 300, Tobias said Tuesday.

The project has received support from veterinary groups such as the SCVets Care Foundation and South Carolina Association of Veterinarians, which donated masks for Lexington County as well as veterinarians such as Dr. Brian Spilker, who purchased and donated masks for fire trucks in Kershaw County.

At the June 10-11 South Carolina State Firefighters Association conference in Myrtle Beach, Tobias and Sinclair said the support from attendees was overwhelming.

Many of the firefighters told them of their experiences of saving animals, and several fire departments inquired about getting the masks through the nonprofit.

“Firemen want them,” Sinclair said.

Also supporting the effort is former state Sen. Phil Leventis, a member of the firefighters’ association who has lived through the experience of having a house fire.

“Pets become an element in a fire,” he said, recalling how his own pets had to be located and kept safe during a fire at his home.

“It’s remarkable that two people can make such a difference,” he said of Tobias’ and Sinclair’s efforts.

Sumter Fire Department has tentatively scheduled to accept 24 Wag’N 02 Fur Life Kits onWednesday, July 14, said Battalion Chief Joey Duggan.

Besides accepting donations of any amount, Pet Oxygen Kit Project is involved in a fundraising project which can provide an additional benefit to pets in fire situations. The nonprofit sells “Pet Inside” decals, which can be placed in a window to alert firefighters of the number and types of pets inside a home.

“Firefighters tell us we can’t save them if we don’t know they are there,” Sinclair said.

She said Pet Oxygen Kit Project sells the magnetic decals at discounted, bulk rates to other nonprofits which can sell them individually to raise funds for their own projects.

“We are looking for groups to pick this up as a fundraiser,” she said. “It is a win-win situation for the pets, the nonprofits and the firefighters.”

All money raised by Pet Oxygen Kit Project goes to buy mask kits for South Carolina fire departments, Tobias said.

For more information, visit www.petoxygenproject.com.