Red Paw pet relief will pass the torch to Philadelphia Fire Dept.

Judah, a high-energy dog at Morris Animal Refuge. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Judah, a high-energy dog at Morris Animal Refuge. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Fire Department announced Thursday that it will integrate the disaster services provided by Red Paw emergency relief into its daily operations. The group announced it would wind down operations in August.

Red Paw staff will train members of the Fire Department’s Community Action Teams, or CATs, in best practices for handling displaced pets. The CATs typically provide after-care to families who have been displaced by fire, as well as doing training in fire prevention and smoke alarm installation in schools, senior centers and other congregate settings. Red Paw has also donated leads and carriers to the CATs. The roughly 24 members of the CATs, plus qualified back-up employees, will be instructed how to respond to disasters and their aftermath with pets as a priority, known as pet-first training.

“In the face of a global pandemic, unprecedented economic and budget constraints, and historical flooding, it would have been so easy to say, ‘No, we’re gonna cut this, we just can’t do it,’” said Red Paw chief operating officer Lori Albright. “But because Chief Johnson and all our partners saw this value in this, we’re doing something that no other city is doing.”

Red Paw has been operating in the Philadelphia region for almost 10 years, and estimates it helps 1,000 animals a year during disasters. The group has always worked in close partnership with the Fire Department and the city’s Office of Emergency Management to offer pet-first emergency services to households with pets.

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Albright said based on Red Paw data, 1 in 3 Fire Department emergency calls has a pet at the household.

“Now, all the lessons learned from Red Paw and their team over the past 10 years and their best practice, they’re going to be training our members,” said Fire Prevention Deputy Chief Charles Johnson.

In its August Facebook post announcing that it would wind down its operations, Red Paw said the closure wasn’t due to financial strain but instead, in part, to poor access to emergency scenes. “As you all know, it’s about having trained personnel getting into a fire dwelling ASAP to do search and rescue for families’ pets,” the post says.

In that sense, training professional firefighters to do the work is the perfect solution. Red Paw will provide the training at no cost, and the Fire Department is not receiving any additional funding to provide the new services. The responsibility for handling displaced pets will be shared between the Fire Department, the Office of Emergency Management, the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) and the Red Cross.

For example, ACCT will provide a handout for firefighters to give to pet owners with a list of options/resources for post-disaster pet care. The Red Cross will continue to try to accommodate displaced pet owners in pet-friendly hotels — all services that Red Paw would have handled in the past. Red Paw will continue to exist as a foundation so it can collect donations from the public and funnel them into the agencies that will now be performing the services.

“We always thought this gap in services should be met by a city department,” said Albright, who attributed the Fire Department’s ability to take on these duties to its unique CAT teams. “I couldn’t have dreamed of a better solution.”

The goal of Red Paw in providing pet-first relief alongside the other agencies has always been to convince those larger, better-funded departments to integrate pet emergency services into what they do, rather than to operate as a own standalone agency. After 9 ½ years, it appears the organization has finally fulfilled its goal.

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