Growing Pains: A Year In The Life Of A Reorg

I wrote a blog last year at this time: Ringing in the New Year ( Most of what I wrote still holds true; I am still not a fan of any holiday that promotes the use of fireworks and sparklers (fire hazards), I still don’t get the Mummers, I’m still waaaaay too young to be retired, and making it to 2016 was a big milestone for Red Paw! We celebrated our five-year anniversary, which is a huge accomplishment! But, we had a lot of growing pains along the way. Some might call it mission creep. Mission creep is essentially going outside of your original mission or unintentionally expanding the mission. Nonprofits are especially at risk of this. Nonprofit people are generally very giving individuals who do ALOT with very little help or resources. They work long hours for very little pay or thanks, and never say no, and want to save the world. So, you can see how mission creep could occur! Red Paw was no exception. Being the only organization in the country doing what we do, there really was no model to follow or to help guide us. Literally everything was being done for the first time. So, there was a whole lot of mission creep or trial and error. By the end of 2015 into early 2016 all of that trial and error was coming to a head. The intended mission of Red Paw was to fill the void in the emergency response cycle at the residential level. The fire department responds to take care of the incident and rescue the people, the medics are on-scene to treat any human injuries, the Red Cross and Salvation Army are there to help the residents, but there was no dedicated entity dispatched to do those things for the residents’ pets. That’s where Red Paw comes in. A group of trained firefighters who respond to residential fire and disaster scenes specifically to handle pets. Seems simple enough, right? Well, the emergency response aspect of it was the easy part. What has been a much more challenging puzzle to put together is what to do with the pets afterwards. Where does emergency assistance end and the long-term recovery/owner responsibility begin?

For the first five years, we struggled with how long to keep someone’s pet after a disaster, how to handle owners who couldn’t take their pets back or who weren’t calling us back, how to handle owners who needed months and months of assistance, how to handle animals who had a host of medical or behavioral issues unrelated to the disaster, etc. We started out telling owner’s that they had 30 days of care for their pets because that was the max time clients could get at the Red Cross House here in Philly, and we found that was the average amount of time most of our clients needed to recover (mission creep – we are an emergency response org and did not have the resources, staffing, or facility to manage animals long-term).

Almost all of the animals we take in are not spayed, neutered or vaccinated nor have they seen a vet regularly. So, regardless of how long we had them in our care, we were getting them all spayed, neutered, vaccinated and seen by a vet and treated for any issues that were making them uncomfortable (mission creep – we are not a welfare org, mission creep – we are not a clinic). Right off the bat we had owners who were finding it easier to let us care for their animals for 30 plus days and then decide to “surrender” them to us, than it was to find a friend or family member to care for them, and so we started keeping them indefinitelyor finding them new homes (mission creep – we are not a shelter). Others found it easier to surrender them immediately during or right after the incident (mission creep – we are not animal control).

Red Paw is not a shelter, as mentioned, we don’t have a facility, I had no animal welfare experience, nor did I want to work in the animal welfare field. Don’t get me wrong, I am an animal person, and admire the people who do, but I’m a firefighter by trade and in my heart. So, when it was getting to the point where 90% of my day was being spent cleaning up after animals, dealing with medical and behavioral issues of animals, trying to find fosters and new homes for animals (all mission creep – we are an emergency response organization), I hit my breaking point. By the end of 2014, to try and keep my head from exploding and keep the organization from imploding, we hired an Animal Services Director whose job it was to handle all things animals. Coordinating with volunteers and handling medical appointments for animals, transportation to medical appointments for animals, treatment at medical appointments for animals, animal questions from fosters, etc. (mission creep, mission creep, mission creep).

And it helped for a while, but it was just a band aid. About a year in we couldn’t financially or organizationally afford to continue paying for all these animals, boarding them and paying for their unrelated medical care, plus the salary for a full-time person to take care of them all. Something needed to change. At one point, we had over 60 animals all over the Southeastern PA and the Southern NJ regions (mission creep – we are not a long term recovery organization, not an adoption agency)!

The biggest questions we needed to address right away were just how long was the appropriate amount of emergency assistance to give an owner, and, what were we going to do with pets that weren’t taken back by their owners? We can’t just open the door and put a dog or cat out on the street. In a way, we were stuck with them. I’m really good at compartmentalizing and dealing with the reality of city life for the animals we take in, but even I couldn’t bear to take these poor guys to Animal Control! And those two issues seemed to be, for most of the life of the organization, the problems we couldn’t solve.

Early last year (2015) it was our goal to get the organization back on track. After many, many meetings and conversations (and some arguments) with board members, partners, friends, family and volunteers, etc., change started to come. First, we worked with one of our board members, who works at the PSPCA, to put together a partnership where the PSPCA would take in any of our animals that are surrendered or abandoned. PSPCA is a no-kill facility and they don’t pull from Animal Control, so no worries about taking a space from a poor dog or cat that might otherwise be put down. Win! We also dramatically reeled in our services. We no longer provide spay, neuter, vaccinations or general vet care for every animal affected by a fire or disaster in their home. There are some zillion organizations in the city and counties who deal with animal welfare issues, and handle income-based vouchers, reduced medical treatment etc., so now we do a lot more referrals to said organizations. There are exceptions to this rule. If the animal is in our care for more than 72 hours or placed into a foster home they will get spayed, neutered and vaccinated, treated for fleas, and any easy fix like an ear or eye infections gets treated. From there every animal is on a case by case basis. Our Chief Operations Officer (COO) also worked on formal agreements and significant discounts for medical treatment and spay/neuter and vaccinations with our partners, along with free boarding from Central Bark Philly (now our Emergency Intake Room location for dogs), World of Animals and VCA Animal Hospital in Philly and Delaware County (THANK YOU!).

Next, we finally came up with real, strict assistance guidelines. On-scene, if the owner states they do not want their animal back, or if the owner left the scene without the animal or there was never an owner on-scene, we call animal control immediately. The exceptions to the rule are if the owner was taken to the hospital or was simply not home during the time of the disaster. If the owner has insurance and the agent or an adjuster is on-scene or they are in the process of working with them, it is their insurance company’s responsibility to place their animals. There are exceptions to this rule as well. Nights and holidays if they can’t get a hold of their insurance company, we will provide 72 hours of emergency shelter. We also reworked our timeline of care. We no longer give a length of service time to the owners, but we are averaging a two week stay now. This is also case by case. The other thing we changed is that we no longer assist any person who has ever had a fire or disaster in their home (meaning like in their lifetime, because, believe it or not, yes, people were calling who had a fire 6 months ago and wanted assistance). Again, we started following the Red Cross’ guidelines. We now have a two-week from date of disaster rule. If you had a fire in your home a month ago, at that point you should be in the recovery process and it’s no longer considered an emergency. 

We also change our policy on when and how much we cover of a family’s medical bill for a pet who has been injured in a fire or disaster. We were initially covering the vet bills for any animal who was injured in a fire or disaster regardless of whether we responded or not (Yes, vet hospitals were calling us to cover the bills for their patients! Mission creep – we are not a medical fund). We now cover the deposit to get the animal evaluated and stabilized and then work on a case by case basis. Next we refocused our outreach. We stopped doing any events that weren’t preparedness or fire prevention related. No more “adoption days”, no more “rescue walks” or “pet fairs”, we don’t do adoptions and we aren’t an animal rescue, so there was no reason for us to be there competing for donations and volunteers with animal welfare organizations and confusing people about our mission.

And probably the biggest and most significant change for the organization was requiring that all responders are at a minimum Fire Fighter 1 certified and also paying them as per-diem responders. I’m of the mindset that a volunteer run organization – especially when you are working alongside the PFD, OEM and other paid professionals, is not sustainable. And, not if you plan to go national someday! A volunteer run organization that must respond at a moment’s notice is impossible (just ask the struggling volunteer fire departments around the country). We tried relying on volunteers to respond, but very, very early on we saw that it was a model that was not efficient or effective. Many of the volunteers had the best intentions, but did not have the right mentality or skill set. And since I wasn’t willing to send unqualified volunteers to disaster scenes, for the first four years it was essentially me responding day and night. Even if we had a well-intentioned volunteer on-call, if it was a response where the fire department was still on-scene or if search and rescue was needed, I had to respond anyway. Not a sustainable model! 

When I tell you, these changes were like a thousand-pound weight was lifted off the organization’s shoulders (and mine), it’s an understatement. But, change doesn’t always come easy and for some, it’s not an easy thing to stomach. We lost a lot of our core volunteers and some leadership and staff when these changes were implemented and got some slack from people in the animal welfare community. And while we couldn’t have made it this far without them, it was either we make these changes and continue to provide our vital services or we fold all together and provide no services. For me, it was an easy and welcomed decision.

Even with all the reorg happening, In 2016 we proudly assisted 449 families and 901 pets in 17 counties and 2 states; Provided 258 with Emergency Transport, 255 with Emergency Shelter, 70 with Emergency Veterinary & Medical Care. We did Search & Rescue for 290 pets missing and/or injured in dwellings. We provided foster care for 194, paid hotel pet fees for 21, provided medicine, food & supplies lost in the disaster to 589 and got 183 pets spayed, neutered and vaccinated.

There is still a lot of work to be done to get Red Paw where it needs to be, for instance, I could use a day off (and a vacation) and my house back (currently small animal intake and RPHQ)! But, we are closer today than we were at this time last year. (Now, hopefully our COO can finally focus on planning and programming. This is an area I cannot even get to – maybe Lori will write a blogpost on that one). You can’t go forward without looking back. Now that we finally have the model we needed five and a half years ago, we can build from here on out! So, here’s to ringing in 2017!

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Getting Schooled in Preparedness

Recently my ten-year-old niece took me back to school shopping. That’s right, she took me. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in school, so who better than a fifth grader to show me the ropes?!

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I’ve always loved September; anyone who’s ever read any of my other blog posts knows how much I love the fall and Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and we at Red Paw are BIG Football fans! And of course, I’m always excited when Preparedness Month begins! But what I wasn’t so thrilled about was going back to school. I loved the idea of it, especially back to school shopping. I really enjoyed buying school supplies and getting everything ready, making sure my school bag had everything in it I needed, it was like I was building my first Go Kits!

While we’re on the subject & September being Preparedness Month, now is a good time to check and make sure that each of your family members has their very own Go kit with the following items:
• Flashlight
• Battery-powered or hand crank radio
• Extra batteries
• Wrench and/or pliers to turn off utilities
• First Aid kit
• Prescription medications for at least one week
• List of family physicians, important medical information
• Cell phone charger
• Extra set of eyeglasses, or contact lenses
• Identification, credit cards, cash
• Photocopies of important family documents including bank and home insurance information
• Extra set of car and house keys
• Local maps
• Special things you can’t live without (mine has canned Starbucks Shots)

And remember, what you do for yourself, you do for your pets! So make sure they have a GoKit as well that includes some of the following:

• a recent picture of you and your pet
• vet records
• medications and/or special foods
• a favorite toy or blanket to help with stress

Now, I’ve always been more of a doer than a sitter. In high school I did everything I could to break up the day. I played on the volleyball team, managed men’s gymnastics, ran track, I even did some photography for the school newspaper. And, during my senior year, my high school offered a work program, and of course, I jumped on that the first chance I could – out of school by noon and off to work! Before I even graduated I had a volunteer job in center city and come graduation I had lined up several paying gigs (I was into preparing ahead even as a teen!). Seems my entire life I’ve been much more interested in hands-on training than classroom learning.

Quickly moving up the ranks at an HIV/AIDS non-profit after high school, college just didn’t seem necessary. But, after several years of trying to get into the fire academy I figured it was time to get some schooling specific to the trade I was looking to move into, so I went to Community College of Philadelphia for an Associates in Fire Science. But work life always seem to get in the way and two classes short (Spanish 2 & Physics), I never finished (Note to self, never leave the hardest classes for last!). Fast forward through the fire academy, my seven years in the PFD and 5 years with Red Paw, I applied last year for the Leadership in Emergency Services Program at Philadelphia University. I got accepted, got all the financial aid nonsense squared away, picked my courses, and then just like before, work life got in the way – turns out sometimes there is no planning for emergencies! So here we are, September (Fall) 2016, and once again I’m registered at Philly U, financial aid is squared away again, and my classes are picked, again.

Not having been in school for some time, like any good emergency responder/preparedness geek, I took a drive to the campus just to scout it out prior to classes beginning. And it’s a good thing I did! Being from Philly, I’m used to points of reference and hundred blocks to point me in the right direction. No such luck on campus though, and the “map” not so helpful. After several trips up and down the wrong stairs (which was not for nothing, I got to look at their standpipes) and walks in a circle from one building to another (again, I got to examine some of the fire hydrants) and in and out of wrong classrooms (at least I got to check out the evacuation routes) I started to get my bearings.
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Here are some tips for you if you’re back in school or if you’re a parent who has a kid back in school:
• Be sure to update emergency contact information with the school at the beginning of the new school year
• Find out the schools emergency plans (Be sure to discuss with your child)
• Learn each building’s evacuation plan
• Carry an id card with any medical issues, allergies and with emergency contact info on you at all times

Barring any disasters (pun intended), I will be graduating with a Bachelors Degree in Leadership in Emergency Services from Philadelphia University in a little less than a year and a half.  And truth be told, I can’t wait to get in the classroom and learn, but I’m even more excited to share my new preparedness and fire safety knowledge with the masses!

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So stay tuned!

And now comes my favorite part, packing my school bag (And no, I didn’t get the dinosaur school bag, but yes, I wanted to)!

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A Specialty Foster’s Story

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One afternoon, during my volunteer work at Emergency Services at UPenn, I peered into an oxygen cage and there sat a small handful of burnt fur. I looked closer and could make out the tiny body of a kitten; her eyes were closed and encrusted, her legs were just skin and bones and plastic was melted into her fur. As I learned more about her condition, I soon realized no one had much hope for her survival, but then again, they didn’t know what a fighter she was.

She stayed in Emergency Services for several days before being released back to Red Paw. By the time she left ES, I knew I needed to be part of Honey Boo Boo’s story. I contacted Red Paw and within two hours, I was at their doorstep ready to take her home in my cat carrier.

I soon learned that Honey’s owner had just taken her in off the street and duet tot he fire could not take her back. She had been through a lot in her three short months of life. She was malnourished, anemic, flea ridden and had a belly full or worms – all that before the fire even started…

When I first took her home, I was not sure if she had any eyes, as even after many cleanings, her eyelids remained swollen and shut. She let me poke and pick at her so I started picking at the plastic melted into her fur and skin, and slowly it began coming off, revealing her burnt skin and singed fur. The good news was that she had the appetite of a bear and ate everything I fed her. As she gathered strength and awareness she started picking at the remaining plastic so together we kept at it until she was plastic free and even the soot was finally coming out of her fur.

After a few weeks, one of her eyes opened to just a slit and when she reached out to paw at a toy, I knew she had sight in at least one eye. As time went on, it became clear the other eye was depressed too far back in its socket and would never be functional again. With her sight back in one eye however, she became playful and even feisty; it was becoming very evident this little girl was a fighter and not going to give up. Things were looking good – by now I had removed and popped most of the fleas, she had been successfully de-wormed, and she was looking pretty presentable.
As luck would have it, she was not out of the woods though.

During the next week she grew listless and just lay around, not eating, drinking or pooping. I contacted Red Paw and they set me up with an appointment at PSPCA that night. The PSPCA did an emergency X-Ray and admitted her right away. After a three-day stay with PSPCA, they had cleared the blockage – perhaps caused by ingesting the melted plastic – and sent her back home to recuperate one more time.

It wasn’t long before she was back to romping and eating and causing all kinds of mischief again. She was finally doing all the things a real kitten should be doing. She was now the proper weight for her vaccinations and even her spay surgery. After a short recovery from the procedure, she was finally ready for her forever home. I wanted a quiet home for the little princess where she could be the center of attention and Red Paw came through with a perfect forever home! I am sure they are both very happy together, but I will never forget my time with Honey.
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Ringing In Year Five!

As we say goodbye to 2015, and ring in the New Year, I have mixed feelings about it. Any holiday that encourages the use of fireworks and sparklers, I can’t really get behind, ummmm, fire hazards! Not to mention, why would I intentionally stay up until midnight if I’m not out on a response?! And the Mummers, I just don’t get it. But, making it to 2016 is a big milestone for Red Paw; we will celebrate our five-year anniversary, which is, in and of itself a huge accomplishment!

It’s said that most start-ups have high failure rates. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau found that a mere 43 percent of start-ups still exist five years later, and a study by the National Center on Charitable Statistics found that the percentage for nonprofits is even less, like much less, 12 percent or lower!

I started the planning process for Red Paw in January of 2011; so really, we’re already at our five-year threshold, (Phew!). Still, disasters come up everyday that I didn’t plan for, or that I couldn’t have imagined; making it a daily challenge (and those are the disasters that have nothing to do with our responses!). I strongly believe starting and running an organization like Red Paw takes a perfect storm of skill sets and personality types. Running a nonprofit (or keeping a nonprofit running) is like searching for a missing pet in a disaster building – you need a whole lot of patience & determination, perseverance and a good strategic plan (a little bit of stubbornness and pride helps too, and Starbucks, lots and lots of Starbucks!). IMG_2491

People ask me all the time why I do this. I wanted to start Red Paw not for the reasons most would think. Yes, I am an “animal person”. My dogs are my kids and I love them more than anything- not in a crazy animal person way, but in a normal-my dogs sleep in bed with me every night and gets all of my blankets-way! I started Red Paw because I love emergency response and I’m pretty good at it, and because I saw a void in the system that I knew I could fix.

When I’m on a response, on a disaster scene, or in a fire building, I know what I’m doing, it comes natural. I feel comfortable and in control. But running a nonprofit, especially one that literally runs 24/7/365 and is volunteer based, has been challenging to say the least!

My sister, Marion, and I started nonprofits around the same time, a few months apart in fact (we are twins and we are real competitive! I’m eight minutes older, so I win!). Her nonprofit: Sink or Swim Philadelphia (SOS), was a crowd funding organization that raised money for people wScreen Shot 2015-12-31 at 1.31.28 PMho were uninsured or underinsured to help pay for their medical expenses. Right before she started SOS, a fellow director of a successful nonprofit in Philly (this particular nonprofit has been around for almost 20 years) told her not to do it, she said and I quote, “it will ruin your life”. I have thought about that warning – I guess we’ll call it that – a lot.

SOS ended earlier this year, after 3.5 years, although not for lack of success, but like many nonprofits, for lack of time and assistance.

My sister decided that she couldn’t continue to run the organization and further her “real” career and education at the same time. And good for her! She is currently the Assistance Director for the Center for Resuscitative Science at the University of Pennsylvania; she has a dual masters degree in Nursing and Public Health and she teaches for both the School of Nursing and the Master’s of Public Health program at Penn! I on the other hand have had no time to further my education, and it weighs on me. In the last five years, especially since my retirement from the Philly Fire Department, almost every second of every day has gone to keeping Red Paw running (“it will ruin your life”- I hear in a creepy whisper voice not infrequently).

Anyone who’s ever started a business or a nonprofit or pretty much done anything from scratch can relate, I’m sure. It’s all consuming. To make it successful, it has to be. But, when you’re so far in it, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. And, I sometimes wish I could have made that very hard decision my sister made. Luckily for me Red Paw has an amazing group of volunteers and staff to help me navigate the forest! And it’s a good thing too, because Red Paw has been busier than ever this year, helping 449 families and 905 pets! And every year demand for Red Paw’s emergency services increases!Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 12.25.50 PM

So five years in, the question you are all dying to ask, “aren’t you too young to be retired?” Um, yes!! But really, did Red Paw ruin my life? Honestly, no, but it definitely changed it! And, what I do know for sure is this, Red Paw, has
literally saved over 2600 animals’ lives and made nearly 1400 people’s lives better. So, I hope that fifteen years from now some other tired, nonprofit’s founder is using Red Paw as an example for their blog and they hear a creepy whisper voice saying it was totally worth it!

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I used to love running. When I was in my early 20’s I ran all the time. I did races every weekend; rain, snow, hot or cold, it didn’t matter, I was running. I had all the gear, joined various running groups, Nike Town was my store! Even into my early 30’s – I was running! Then that all changed four years ago when Red Paw started.  For the first time in almost my entire life I stopped working out and running. For three years I literally, literally, did nothing but eat, sleep and breathe Red Paw. Then last year, after seeing a picture of myself in an article about Red Paw and not loving the way I looked (or how I had felt for a while), I decided things had to change, for my well being and also Red Paw’s.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 8.12.02 PMSo, I started to work out again (notice I did not say I started running again) and in true Jen fashion, I dove in head first! I started off by doing a 10-day cleanse and the Insanity workout at the same time. This did not immediately help with my physical and mental state. (No coffee and lots of sore body parts!). If you don’t know what Insanity is, think military Bootcamp minus the commitment and yelling! And truly, the name pretty much says it all!! It was in fact insane! Once I completed the 90 day Insanity challenge I moved on to Cross Fit and boxing classes and then a personal trainer for power lifting. I felt great! I was getting back to my fighting weight, getting my six pack back and happy about where I was at physically and mentally.

But enough about me…This is about what, or should I say who, motivated me to finally start running again. Thad Dickinson, a supporter from Atlanta, GA., contacted us and said that he’d been following Red Paw’s Facebook and Twitter pages for a while, read our story about Short Rib (and his feline mom), one of our fire kittens who we rescued from a fire. Sadly, Short Rib’s injuries were too much for his little body; however, his mom recovered and was reunited with her humans.

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Within days of hearing Short Rib’s story, he registered for the Philadelphia Marathon and decided to run the 26.2 miles in Short Rib’s memory to raise funds in support of Red Paw’s other injured and displaced pets like Short Rib! Awesome right?! Thad is not an avid runner, but unlike me he has run three half-marathons and completed a marathon in 2012. So cool, right?! I loved the idea and was so honored that he was coming to Philly and doing this for us that it inspired me to start running again. Solidarity, right?!

Well, turns out I hate running now! I don’t know what happened, I used to be so good at it and I thought I was in pretty good shape! But, it’s not like riding a bike! I mean, it is technically (one foot in front of the other), but boy now it’s like a slow form of torture! In a way it’s my own fault. When I run it’s only for 3 miles (I heard Thad is up to 20!) – the catch is that I make myself do it in 30 minutes or less, partially because of my competitive nature, but mostly because I want it over with so badly! The quicker I run, the quicker I’m done! There’s a logic there somewhere.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 7.51.03 PMAnyway, my point is that as much as I’d love to be one of those people again, you know, the ones who run for stress relief or who run to get out into the fresh air or just run for the love of running, the truth is I’d rather just lift a hundred plus pounds over my head and call it a day! Still, I’m going to begrudgingly run my 3 miles  and live vicariously through Thad – the guy who actually does love to run or at least who loves to run for Red Paw! Check out his story here and please help support him in supporting us:

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Personal Preparedness & the #PopeInPhilly!

Personal preparedness and common sense will get you through most things in life, and the #PopeInPhilly!

Pope MapsEverywhere I go I overhear people talking about the Pope coming to town; annoyed about road closures, frustrated about highway closures, confused about where to park their cars and wondering if they’ll be allowed on their own balconies! Almost every tweet is more speculation, more maps; walking maps, bike maps and my personal favorite, the map of lava, zombies & pterodactyls! If you live in or around the “Pope Zone” people are talking about treating this like a snowstorm or severe weather event. The Mayor even told folks at a Pope press briefing to stock up on milk and bread! Is all of this just a little bit crazy? You can decide that for yourself.

Here is what I know for sure; besides the fact that there will be no pterodactyls (thanks a lot PPD!), I know that locally, we have the best of the best working on this Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 9.40.26 AM(s/o City of Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, Philadelphia Fire Department, Philadelphia Police Department, to name a few), we’ve known about the Pope coming to town for some time now. Even before we had confirmed information about which roads, highways and bridges would be closed, even before we had the maps with the confirmed boundaries and zones and inner zones, we knew it was going to be bigger than anything Philly has ever seen before, even before we were told an estimated 1-million pilgrims could potentially converge on the city in thousands of busses, we knew. So there has been more than enough time to prepare and plan accordingly. And with a little less than a month left, there is no time like the present!

Coincidentally, September is National Preparedness Month. And preparedness is everyone’s responsibility, during an emergency or when the Pope comes to visit! Everyone should have a fire escape plan, an emergency plan, an emergency kit, a go kit and you should be talking about and practicing your plans regularly with your family members (pets included)! So if you are planning on staying in Philly that weekend, why not use it as good practice, it is preparedness month after all!

One of my favorite saying is as follows: better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. No truer words have ever been spoken (Although, this is not meant to encourage you all to become hoarders-fire hazard)! Being the emergency response geek that I am (and the person who posts, tweets and provides all the disaster preparedness and fire safety content for Red Paw Emergency Relief Team), I try to practice what I preach. For instance, I check my smoke alarms and emergency kit regularly. I am constantly discussing our family’s fire escape plan and making the dogs practice! I have the Red Cross’ Pet First Aid app on my phone so I know where all the closest pet friendly hotels are should we ever need to evacuate our home, our neighbors know how many pets we have and our phone numbers should something happen while we are out. I could go on and on! But, I also make it a point to be personally prepared. I know that at any moment I could be called to a disaster response, that response could be an hour or it could be three days! So, in my backpack at all times I have myI76 computer fully charged, I have my wireless device fully charged, I have my phone charger case fully charged. I get migraines, so I carry migraine medicine, I get cranky when I’m hungry so I carry protein bars, I get even crankier when I need coffee, so I carry bottled ready to drink Starbucks. Priorities!:) My point being, that I know what I need to be personally prepared. Personal preparedness!

This all seems so obvious, right? One would think, but, what inspired me to write this blog was something else Mayor Nutter said at one of his Pope briefings; residents can drive their cars on certain streets, but at some point you are going to have to make a decision, because a zillion people will be on those streets as well. Ok, he didn’t say a zillion, but you get my point. Common sense! If you live in Philly during football season, you know that during home games it’s probably not a good idea to drive south on Broad St. You also know that Old City in the summertime is filled with bus loads of class trips and tourists, and that going to the Starbucks at 3rd & Arch to get a latte could take 45 minutes easy (a mistake I’ve made many times)! We know these things, just like we all know what a challenge it’s going to become during Pope weekend moving about this city. More importantly, what a challenge it’s going to be for emergency response vehicles and other necessary entities to move around the city! Let’s not make it worse. I mean really, what could you possibly need to do in “the zone” that weekend that would require you to drive along side a zillion people?! I drive around Philly A LOT, on a normal day any more, regardless of rush hour, it could take an hour to get from South Philly to North Philly, so just imagine what the response time to a disaster will be with an extra million or so people in town! Let’s just say I will have plenty of snacks and caffeinated beverages with me at all times!

starbucksSo therefore, my humble advice, as someone who runs an emergency response organization in Philly; Be proud of what is about to occur here, for the entire world to see, and, if you are coming to town for the Pope, or you live here, plan accordingly, prepare now, use your God given common sense and have a little faith!

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Raising a Non-Profit

By now my friends have all realized they’ve lost me. Having a 4 yr old non-profit is like having a newborn, or so I’d imagine. Especially an emergency response org; up all night, sleep deprived, walking around with dog slobber on my clothes, not being able to talk about or focus on anything else. And I’m sure on more than one occasion I’ve bored them with recent cute pictures of dogs I’ve helped (what’s a proud mom to do?)! I have to be honest however, I’ve spent more than one night sitting outside of my house, in RP1, listening to jazz, not wanting to go inside and deal with all the foster “kids”!RaisingNonProfit03

Most of my friends don’t even really understand what I’m doing or why I’m so busy (stay at home mom’s can you feel me? “What is it you do all day?”). I’m not mad at them though, I totally get it! Most people live their lives not really giving disaster preparedness a second thought, let alone thinking a fire could destroy their house…until the night that it does.

RaisingNonProfit02This past winter I got a call at 3:30 in the morning; it was my night “off”, so I woke up slightly annoyed that my phone was ringing (kind of like when the kids are at grand moms and you finally get a night of peace!). The call was from one of my oldest and closest friends; there was a fire in her father’s apartment in Philly, her childhood home. Everyone had gotten out safely, including their dog, thanks to working smoke alarms, but his cat was still missing.

RaisingNonProfit01When I arrived on-scene the PFD was still inside putting water on some hot spots, but I was able to get in and search. As the years go on, we are asked to respond more and more, so I’m getting better and better at finding missing pets in fire dwellings (must be a mother’s instinct!). But I’m also really stubborn about it; I hate leaving a scene with out finding the owner’s pet, after all these are people’s children! But there’s definitely an added pressure when it’s someone’spet that you know and love. So I was very relieved to have found my friends cat so quickly, and uninjured! And her father was ecstatic to have both his “kids” back with him safe and sound!

RaisingNonProfit04The morning after the fire my friend posted on her FB page what had happened, “just when you start to imagine something never could happen to you, our dad’s apartment was badly damaged by an electrical fire last night”, she wrote, followed by a picture of her son with this caption ”One of the (at least) two very good reasons why I’m going around the house unplugging appliances…safety first!”

I’d imagine like most parents, there are days (and nights) you are so tired and exhausted, hungry, frazzled and crazed, that you long for the days before your children. I know I do!;) But its nights like that one above, that my “kid” makes me the proudest, because of Red Paw and how it’s grown and matured, we as an organization get to do what we do best, help keep families together, especially for a friend and her family, that’s when everything else is worth it!

Below are fire safety and preparedness tips to keep you and your kids (2 & 4-legged) safe:

-Always have working smoke alarms on every floor of your home.
-Be sure there is a neighbor or family member’s home you can go to if you need to leave your house in the middle of the night.
-Get renters or homeowners insurance! It’s pretty cheap, and worth it!
-Have a plan in place for your family and pets, if you need to leave your home or neighborhood due to a fire or disaster.
-Practice your fire escape plan regularly and discuss your family’s meeting place.
-Unplug all non-essential items when you are not using them. i.e lamps, coffee maker, phone chargers, etc.
-Do not use candles in your home.
-Have a buddy system with a neighbor, so if you aren’t home they can inform first responders of pets inside or other important information they should know about your home.

For more fire safety and preparedness tips:

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National Volunteer Week

The following post is by Stef Melo

StefMHere’s the thing….. I like animals better than I like most people. They’re loyal, they love unconditionally and they don’t expect much in return. I have two furry children of my own and the reality is that my life pretty much revolves around them, and what they need (much like my friends who have those two legged children running around their houses). If I had the space, could afford it and wouldn’t be disowned by the two who currently own me, I would probably be in danger of being a certified “Crazy Cat (and Dog) Lady.” Thankfully, I know my limits.

Patches 2009That being said, I was searching for a way to be able to help more animals. I had jumped on board with some grass roots groups doing transports and such, but found that I just didn’t mesh with the folks involved. You may have seen it before – some people become really, um, brazen (nicest word I could come up with here!) when they’re able to spout their opinions from behind a keyboard and monitor. Anyway, I knew I had to keep looking. I knew my niche would be out there somewhere.

Drake at PoppopsI got a part time job as a receptionist at my vet’s office. I work with a great group of ladies (and two gentlemen) in the practice and we have fun. And I get to get my “fur fix” whenever I am working. But, it still wasn’t enough. I kept looking. And I started seeing these posts popping up in my Facebook News Feed (because my friends were “liking” them) about this group – “Red Paw something-or-other.” Day after day I would see posts about fire responses, animals needing foster care and families dealing with so much loss already and now having to worry about where their beloved furry family member would be able to stay while they tried to get back on their feet.These posts intrigued me. So, I did some research. And, I liked what I saw. I mean, this group was LEGIT (unlike some of the other groups floating around out there in Facebookland). Straight up, I was IMPRESSED with everything I saw this organization doing. So, I asked to join their ranks as a volunteer. AND THEY LET ME!!!! (Picture me doing the Snoopy Happy Dance!)

Molly faceI did my first transport for Red Paw in November 2014 – Thanksgiving Week. What could be better than reuniting a family just a few days before THANKSGIVING??? The family was so appreciative of everything Red Paw did to help and they hugged me and thanked me for bringing back their precious family member. I walked out of that reunion with tears in my eyes! BEST. FEELING. EVER!!!

Since that first Red Paw transport, I have reunited more families, done a couple of transports to and from foster homes/boarding facilities and have also started volunteering as a “Dog Mate” (how cool of a title is that??). Not only do I get a cool title, but I get to play with dogs!!! Eventually, I will attend training to become a responder as well.

SamirrahSo, what does being a Red Paw Volunteer mean to me? It means that I’m privileged to be a part of an amazing organization that provides a much needed service to people when they’re at one of the lowest points in their life. It means that, for all the times someone has reached out to me with a helping hand for something, I get to pay it forward. It means that families who are dealing with immense grief and loss have one less thing to worry about. And, it means I get to love on some awesome cats and dogs until they’re able to get back to their people where they truly belong. I don’t think I could ask for anything more! Seriously, life is great as a Red Paw Volunteer!

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Spring Cleaning

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 5.39.04 PMSpring is my second favorite time of year (See my blog: I love the Fall)! Wikipedia say’s  spring is the season of rejuvenation and rebirth; I say it’s the season of warmer weather and spring-cleaning! I also say, “if you haven’t used it, lose it”. This applies nicely to spring-cleaning and fire prevention! Another one of my favorites, “less is more”. I come from a long line of “packrats”…or in other words sentimental Italians! Growing up, my grand-mom always had a fully stocked refrigerator in the kitchen, stocked icebox in the basement and an extra stocked refrigerator in her garage! I remember every room, closet, basement and attic was just full of stuff she couldn’t part with! My mom and my aunts (bless their Italian souls) are the same way. They never want to throw anything away. Old pictures, yearbooks, holiday decoration and stuffed animals from when my sister and I were little, just sit in boxes, closets and attics taking up space, their refrigerators too, stuffed to the gills, just in case 50 random people stop by that they have to feed! All of this stuff adds to the fire load of the house (and stresses me out)!

IMG_0351I on the other hand, not surprisingly, hate clutter and stuff -um, fire hazard! I’ve been in homes and have seen first-hand the consequences of too much stuff. So in my house, everything has to have its place and everything has to have a practical purpose. If it’s not used, it gets recycled or donated!

Clothes, magazines, utensils, nothing is safe- “if you haven’t used it…” Now I’m not saying you have to live like a minimalist Buddhist Monk, but just not like a sentimental Italian grand-mom either! Not only is it cleansing to get rid of the stuff you aren’t using or don’t need, but if you donate that stuff, it helps others (the Buddhist’s like that!) and most importantly it’s good fire prevention! The more stuff you have the bigger the fire load, the harder to egress in an emergency and the more difficult it could be for the fire fighters and our responders, if there’s a fire in your home!

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 5.39.18 PMI mean really, in this day and age, you can get any book, magazine or newspaper you have lying around your house, on-line or in a library, where you can return it after you’re done with it, so it’s not taking up space in your house! Old photos, reports and research papers can now be uploaded to the cloud or Flickr or dozens of other photo sharing and storage sites, old cds and dvd’s can be streamed or downloaded to your computer, and what’s old always comes back new, so donate your kids old toys, clothes and stuffed animals to someone who really needs it and just keep the memories! It may seem overwhelming but these small steps over time will help keep the most important things in your home safe!

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What is Red Paw?

The following post is by Connie Griffin, Practice Manager of World of Animals Veterinary Hospitals

WOFA two dogs“What’s Red Paw?” is a question I am asked quite a bit. At this point I find it strange – how can people in this city not know about this organization?!! Friends, relatives, new employees, clients – dog people, cat people. What do you mean you’ve never heard of them??! They are on the news; in the paper; featured on CNN; have 30,500 friends on Facebook and still I get the question. But I enjoy giving them the answer. It is a wonderful non-profit that works like the Red Cross, but for animals, and comes to their rescue after a disaster, to help them when no one else will. They help thousands of pets since they began in 2011; get them vaccinated, spayed/neutered and sheltered until they can be reunited with their owners once more. Just as important, they give the owners peace of mind knowing that their beloved pets will be ok, so they can take care of themselves and try to put their lives back together. I take pride in being able to say that, “They are our charity”.

WOFA CatThen I remember back to 2012, I had just started working for World of Animals Veterinary Hospital when I met RP volunteers for the first time at a charity walk. It was pouring rain, and on their table in a crate, sat a very tolerant cat trying to stay dry under a precariously perched umbrella. It was those volunteers who first told me “what Red Paw was”. So it began slowly, with a donation bin set up for Hurricane Sandy victims and a “like” on Facebook. A couple months later I read a heart-breaking Facebook post. RP facilities were full, and unless a foster became available “Jade” a pretty brindle boxer would have to stay, chained up in the back yard of her burned out house. (!!!) That’s when I went to WOFA owners and asked if we could please keep her in our kennel in Huntingdon Valley. We had space, and it wouldn’t cost much – just some dog food and a little extra staff time. I had a very persuasive argument all ready to go when I heard: “Sure. It’s good karma.” Done.

Jade was our first RP dog. Sweet and lovey, she easily found her way into everyone’s heart by the time she went back home. It was such a positive experience for everyone, the owners and I felt like we were giving back to the community; the staff loved her and took pride in helping her; she was not only safe and fed but she was also having fun. Seeing the effect of helping that one dog, inspired us to help even more. At the next management meeting, WOFA owners told me to call Red Paw and offer them one run at our kennel, whenever they needed it, for free.

WOFA Noel and RedA few weeks later came a call from Jen, “Can you take two? They’re small.” Hmm, ok, so we got Red & Noel, two hyper Min Pins who ate more than most Rottweiler’s and ran around the play yard like Greyhounds. Eventually we were told their owners were putting them up for adoption; and one of our staff gave Red a permanent home.

Then came along Buddy & Poof, two fluffy little characters that had no idea how lucky they were to have escaped their house fire with their family, and they made themselves at home the first day.

Garfield – everyone on staff wanted Garfield – “He has a home,” I kept repeating. He was Chris’s kennel assistant following her around on her chores in a different sweater for every day of the week, and was later reunited with his family!

Princess, our first puppy, who just wanted to play, play, play – and eat anything that wasn’t nailed down. She reminded us how much work puppies are and gave everyone a newfound empathy for our clients with newly adopted pups at home!

And then there is our current Red Paw dog, tiny little Hershey, just content to snuggle up inside a receptionist’s fleece jacket and work off his stay helping at the front desk!

WOFA Dog in ShirtAll of our boarding dogs are loved and played with and spoiled by everyone at the hospital. They hang out at the front desk during lunch break and play in pools and sprinklers in the summer; get extra treats slid under the run doors when we lock up. But the RP dogs have a way of tugging at our hearts. Most are friendly, outgoing and sociable. Others are shy, nervous or fearful. A few are hyper and excitable, or timid and apprehensive. But each and every one is very much in need of our love, patience and companionship. Some stay with us for so long, one, two, three months at a time, that they become the staff’s collective foster dogs. Until it is time to say, “Good-bye”.

“What is Red Paw?” It is a question I will never tire of answering, for each time I get the opportunity to tell someone, who otherwise would never have known, about a wonderful organization of dedicated volunteers that comprise The Red Paw Emergency Relief Team.

The owners, doctors and staff of World of Animals Veterinary Hospitals are proud to be called a Red Paw supporter.

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