Fred the Preparedness Dog has been all over the 2015 Preparedness Summit, meeting fellow public health professionals, attending sessions, and even hosting one of his own. Fred, a 3-year-old German shepherd who works with the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment (KDHE) to teach children about family and pet preparedness, on Wednesday even sat down to record an interview for NACCHO’s Podcast Series. Fred and his handler, Michael McNulty, Director of Homeland Security for the KDHE, fielded questions related to Fred’s history, his goals, and the types of events he conducts. An abridged version of the interview follows:
NACCHO: What gave you the idea to start the Fred the Preparedness Dog program, and what is it all about?
Michael: The program is all about the education of kids. Our target audience is children between the ages of five and 12, and our goal is to get them thinking about how to get themselves, their families, and their pets prepared for emergencies and disasters.
The program started because of a picture my wife took. We had a nice, warm August day in Kansas and Fred was hanging out in the bathtub. She thought it was cute and took a picture and I thought, wow. That’s a dog taking shelter. The agency (KDHE) allowed us to use their Twitter to put out that even Fred knows you need to practice your storm preparedness. The next week we tweeted a picture of him wearing our family emergency kit backpack, and the next week he had a weather radio clipped to his collar. We utilized all of that during National Preparedness Month and it really got a lot of traction. People really connected and thought, yeah, I need to have my pet’s preparedness as part of my plan. That was two-and-a-half years ago.
NACCHO: So it started as a Twitter campaign?
Michael: Yeah, it started as a Twitter thing and on our internal agency newsletter, and since then it’s really taken off. He’s on Twitter, he’s on Facebook, he has his own website, he does PSAs, and site visits. We traveled in the last two years over 12,000 miles in the state of Kansas and have had over 10,000 interactions. Most of those have been with kids.
NACCHO: What are the different events Fred attends and how does he share his message? What is his main message for preparedness?
Michael: The main message is the one that a lot of us professionals hand out. Make a plan, make a kit, stay informed. When we talk about making a plan we talk about including that whole family and our pets. What are we going to do if we’re away at school, if we’re at work, if we’re with our pets, and where are we going to take shelter? We talk to kids about how they use fire drills and tornado drills at school, and ask, do they do that at home? Do they practice those drills with their pets so their pets know what to do in case of an emergency? Do they know that they’re going to go into the basement and that’s going to be a safe place where they’re going to get treats and they’re going to get to play with their toys? That their family is going to be around and they’re going to have familiar smells? Because the last thing we want while a storm is coming in and the barometric pressure is changing and animals are stressed any way, is trying to wrangle them up and get them downstairs. If we can practice that early, then they’re used to it and it’s going to be a lot easier.
NACCHO: Are the events mostly family events?
Michael: Mostly family and community events. We do a number of schools. We like getting him in the classroom because it gives the kids an opportunity to interact with Fred. We encourage them to come up and pet him.
NACCHO: So he’s great with kids? He doesn’t mind the overwhelmingness of kids?
Michael: Yeah, he’s great with kids. The important part with Fred is we always make sure and leave him open space, so he can see a way out in case he does get stressed. He knows he can always come to me, get behind me, and he’s always got a way to leave if he wants to. He never wants to.
NACCHO: What is the response from the community around having a mascot such as a Preparedness Dog?
Michael: It’s been phenomenal. A lot of the communities have really taken to it and we’ve gotten great partnerships with our local health departments, with our county animal response teams, with federal partners such as CDC, HHS, and FEMA.
NACCHO: You have ties to the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). What are those?
Michael: MRC funded a program we’re associated with at the state health department and we try to partner up with them when they’re having events to get the word about Fred out. Our first event that we ever did actually was attached with the MRC in Shawnee County, KS, so we’re really happy that they took a chance to have us there.
NACCHO: Are you trying to replicate this in other cities?
Michael: That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do at this week’s Summit. We’re going to talk about the way Fred came about, the things that we’ve done, the issues that we’ve run in to, because there have been some hiccups. One example is his ID. Fred has a state issued ID that says Fred the Preparedness Dog on it, and it has really allowed a lot of doors to be opened. A lot of people would look and say, well, you’re bringing your pet in. Well, we’re not, we’re bringing in Fred the Preparedness Dog. He’s working with me as part of the state health department and we’re bringing this preparedness message to you guys.
NACCHO: You documented your journey to Atlanta via social media. Tell us about the experience. What were the highlights, who did you meet?
Michael: We met a lot of interesting folks. We drove down here from Kansas and made a couple days out of it. We went as far as Nashville on day 1 and then came on into Atlanta, but whenever we would stop and get out and just be walking around people would come up to us and talk to us. Even while we were in the hotel, we’d run in to some families that would just come up and say hello. And right there is the opening I need to say, “His name is Fred, do you want to pet him? And this is why his bag is on and this is what he has in it,” and so its really great, just to to open those doors and get those conversations started.
Listen to the podcast to hear from Michael—and Fred—in their own words.