September 2016 is National Preparedness Month.
While much of the focus is on how households can become better prepared for emergencies, organizations like the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team of Philadelphia, PA focus specifically on pet preparedness.
Red Paw is a nonprofit organization that works 24/7 to aid in the relief and recovery of pets displaced by residential disasters.
“We do for pets what the Red Cross does for people,” founder Jen Leary, a former firefighter, told CNN. “These are people’s children.”
With the help of hundreds of volunteers, Red Paw is able to provide free search & rescue and emergency transport, shelter, and veterinary care to animals involved in gas leaks, fires, building collapses, and more.
I had the opportunity to ask several Red Paw responders what they think the most important elements of pet emergency preparedness are. Here’s what they said:
Have a neighbor “buddy system” for your pets.
Jen Leary, Founder and President of Red Paw, and Franklin Frake, Emergency Services Coordinator for Red Paw, suggest a neighbor “buddy system” for your pets in case something happens when you’re not home.
“Make sure a neighbor has a spare key, your contact info, and is friendly with your pets in case they need to evacuate them while you are not there or inform first responders about what type of pets you have, should there be a fire in your home while you are out,” Leary explains.
“So many times Red Paw responds to fires in Philadelphia where no one is home,” recalls Frake. “Luckily, the firefighters notice pet bowls or toys and they have Red Paw dispatched. If you are not home during an emergency and no one knows there are animals inside—especially cats, who like to hide during disasters—they may not receive the attention they need in a timely fashion.”
Have a clean and comfortable carrier readily available.
Olly McDonagh, Firefighter for Special Operations Company, and Kevin Thorne, Sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, urge every pet owner to have a clean and comfortable pet carrier in an easy to locate area that every member of the house knows about.
“The good news,” McDonagh explains, “is that cats hide and seem to survive disaster against the odds. I have been to several dwellings after fires where I’m told, ‘it must have escaped or perished,’ only to find the cat in a drop ceiling or behind drywall.”
Thorne always hangs his dog leashes in the same place and keeps treats near the front door. “Getting dogs to calm down to put leashes on can be difficult,” he says. “This way, they know that when I go for the leashes they are either getting a treat or they’re going out. Either way, they're next to me.”
Make sure dogs are comfortable on leads and in cars.
Cheryl Kopacz-Houseal, Montgomery County Coordinator for Red Paw, agrees, but recommends having dogs on leads, rather than leashes and collars, which they can slip out of. Additionally, make sure your pets are comfortable riding in vehicles.
“One way to make being in carriers a positive experience is to leave the carriers out and allow your cats to go in and out as they please,” she says. “Leave some treats in the carriers so they know it’s a ‘good’ thing. As for dogs, get them to like to being on leads and take them for rides in the car so they know the car is ‘good.’”
Bonus tips from Cheryl: 1. If all else fails, you can put cats in pillow cases. 2. Always put pets in the backseat of your vehicle and tethered so they can’t escape if you open the door.
Look for possible pet hazards in your home.
Michael Gray, Volunteer Firefighter for Glenolden Fire Company, tells pet owners to be diligent in identifying possible hazards that their animals might find “attractive,” like exposed electrical cords, electric or battery operated air fresheners, or fuel containers.
“I have responded to a few emergencies where an animal was the aiding cause of ignition.” He describes one case where “a large dog was able to get a hold of a plug-in air freshener, which caused an arch at the outlet, igniting curtains and subsequently causing major damage to the room it was in, as well as smoke and water damage to the rest of the house because the flames started spreading to the second floor.”
An extra word of advice from Gray about pets and carriers: Assign family members a pet to grab in case of emergency.
Practice an emergency plan.
Brian Devaney, Red Paw Emergency Responder and Volunteer Firefighter in Bucks County, PA, encourages every pet owner to develop a plan to safely get everyone out of your home in the event of an emergency, especially for those who live in multi-story homes or apartment buildings.
“Emergencies can be very chaotic,” he warns, “but if you have practiced your plan, instinct will take over.”