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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