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How prepared for disaster are you?

The senior manager of disaster response for The HSUS walks us through common disaster issues shelters and rescues face, and what we can do to prepare for them

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Is your organization prepared for a disaster? A plan is only effective if it is flexible and it is practiced regularly.

When I sat down at my computer to write about how shelters need to be prepared for crisis, I could hear reports breaking on CNN about the historic flooding in the state of Louisiana. Of course, I quickly grew distracted and numb watching the devastating images onscreen. Reports of thousands of people rescued—and concerns of animal shelters under water. Even more news of people leaving pets behind and shelters unable to evacuate because of a lack of resources. How could this be? I thought we’d come so far! My eyes welled with tears and memories of Katrina started to come back.

Like any disaster, this event highlights the need, not only for personal preparedness by private citizens, but also for shelters to have effective disaster plans.

Do you know the most common type of disaster that impacts shelters?


That’s right! A structure fire.

Do you know what you would do if your facility caught on fire? It is most likely to happen when you and your staff are not in the building. The fire could be caused by anything from electrical issues to debris catching fire outside. Now is the time to look at your shelter and see what changes you can make to limit damage, and to make plans with your local fire department about how a structure fire would be managed. Recently, I have heard about far too many facilities that have caught fire resulting in devastating loss of life. One particular event that stands out in my mind occurred when a dryer caught on fire. There was damage not only to the building, but also significant loss of animal life. It was a devastating scene for the staff as well as for the community.

The four phases of disaster planning are mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.  Mitigation refers to actions that you take to reduce the severity of a disaster, which can be challenging because these are permanent changes being made to your facility that can cost money. Adding a sprinkler system to your shelter to reduce the severity of a building fire is an example of mitigation. Of course, we all know that budget is always a consideration, so establishing your priorities will certainly be an essential component.

Recovery from a disaster can take a few days to months, depending upon the type of disaster. Recovery has occurred when you are beginning to return to a normal state. When you think through your recovery plans for specific disasters, consider using an online wish list to request donations of items that you can utilize. And think a bit outside of the box on ways to help the community. Perhaps a foster program just for disaster animals will be ideal, or maybe you’ll need an increase in transports to free up space.

When you think through preparedness, here are two key points you need to consider:

  • Have you developed relationships with community partners like your local Office of Emergency Management (which you should be linked in with always), the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, voluntary agencies active in disaster (VOADs), your local fire department and sheriff’s office, your county’s animal response team and other animal protection agencies? They should be part of your plan, too. Some of these agencies, especially your fire department and local law enforcement, may have trained personnel or supplies, and you may be able to view the plans of other animal shelters and integrate them for your own use. Talk about shared resources and capacity while also developing mutual aid agreements as well as memorandums of understanding in advance of a disaster
  • Do your essential personnel have a plan in place for their own families and their animals if they need to be available to you in the event of a crisis?

Remember, a plan is only effective if it is flexible and it is practiced regularly. For example, my personal plan is pretty intense. While I am currently without a pet (I know, I know, this seems crazy for someone in animal protection, right?), I have a family, and part of my job is to make certain our family is safe. So what do we do? Twice a year—when daylight savings time begins and ends—we review our plans. We make sure our “go bags” are packed with the essential items we need so we can just grab them and go in case of an emergency. And we also practice. No one wants to be woken up at 2 am to run through a disaster plan for a fire, but we do it. Why? So that each member of my family knows their roles and how to get out safely in case of a fire. None of these run perfectly, and we usually modify our plans after each practice. In the same light, I have yet to be part of a disaster response where everything ran perfectly and where nothing was learned. Take those learnings and incorporate them into your plans, both personal and for your facility.

For many agencies, writing and developing a plan seems overwhelming, but it is just as essential as developing your daily care protocols and other standard operating procedures. None of us want to think that a disaster can happen to us. We hope that we will never have to use the planning that all the practice is for. But if we do, having buy-in from our staff—and knowing our staff are able to execute the plan without a second thought—is critical to saving lives.

Does your organization have a disaster plan in place? Where will you improve? Tell us in the comments below!


About the Author

Wanda Merling is the Senior Manager of the Disaster Services program for the Animal Rescue Team of The Humane Society of the United States, focusing on developing relationships with external partners and agencies to drive the growth of The HSUS's Disaster Services program and strengthen The HSUS's role in the emergency-response community. With her strong background in coalition building and crisis management, Wanda facilitates new and innovative methods of rescue and recovery for people and their pets during natural disasters.