The Surprising Tech Behind the ASPCA’s Most Daring Rescues

How a rapid response team uses hardcore logistics to rescue thousands of animals per year

The ASPCA’s rapid response FIR team uses a “shared brain” of cloud folders to organize volunteer responders across the country.

Every year, the ASPCA saves thousands of animals in distress.

They save pets from tornadoes that ravage entire towns and from hurricanes strong enough to flood a city, and they help law enforcement save animals from neglect, abuse, and animal ­fighting operations.

And so it’s only natural that when you think about the ASPCA, you might think about compassion, and caregiving, and maybe even adopting an affectionate puppy who just needs some love.

But we don’t often consider the planning and execution that goes into providing that love. Or, rather, in the case of a 891­-person, nationwide operation like the ASPCA, providing that love at scale.

“When we have field ops, it’s significant,” says Joel Lopez, Director of Planning and Field Operations. “It generally means a [large] criminal case. And we generally have several cases at a time.”

For example, the ASPCA responds to roughly 2,5­35 cases of dog fighting per year. A substantial amount of time is spent processing evidence, and even more time is spent sheltering those animals in temporary shelters. At times the ASPCA can have up to five shelters operating in different states at once.

That means: hundreds of animals, several different locations, and plenty of work coordinating travel, housing and meals for every pet and every person.

The logistics can be daunting. It’s a challenge that any large organization can sympathize with: How do we get X people to do Y things in Z time without spending an entire XYZ of dollars?

Enter the Field Investigations and Response (FIR) Team

FIR, in some ways, is like a first­ response team combined with Animal C.S.I.

The team, which Lopez helps to direct, is comprised of only twenty staffers. Those staffers are located across the forty-­eight contiguous states. When the FBI finds, for example, a dog fighting operation, they may reach out to a member of the FIR team. Once the FIR team assesses the situation, they begin organizing the response. And, since natural disasters can be quite large, FIR relies on a nationwide network of volunteers — also spread out across the country — to assist.

“How do we get X people to do Y things in Z time without spending an entire XYZ of dollars?”

This presents an ongoing challenge for FIR. Not only must they respond in a timely manner to unfamiliar locations and events, but they must also organize groups of volunteers, book their travel, find them lodging, make sure they’re fed, assign them tasks, and supervise their work. And what’s more, FIR must also constantly communicate the situation on the ground to headquarters.

FIR’s method of managing all these requirements: a deceptively simple shared space in the cloud where all the information related to a new incident is managed.

How Being Organized Saves Puppies

Each time FIR goes into action at a disaster site, the FIR manager copies a standardized set of nested folders and renames the new set with the name of the event at hand. Lopez calls it “the shared brain”.

There are nine sub­folders in the shared space. Each sub­folder corresponds to one of the task managers on the FIR team, who are responsible for that specific category of work: lodging, transportation, scheduling, sign-­in sheets, etc. FIR also has a Command Notes folder, which is used to share daily situation reports from the disaster site with executives at headquarters.

One of the most important parts of the process is coordinating volunteers, because those volunteers need to have a positive experience on the ground. Lopez says FIR goes to lengths to ensure they’re well cared for.

“So say [you’re] a volunteer,” says Lopez. What happens is this:

  • You get an email from FIR with a link to a Survey Monkey form, which asks you for a range of time that you’re available to assist.
  • When a volunteer fills out that form, the result is automatically downloaded to the scheduling folder.
  • FIR management confirms that availability with the volunteer
  • A FIR manager then sends an email with that responder’s specific details to up to eight
  • FIR volunteer coordinators, depending on the size of the operation.
  • The transportation coordinator goes into the transportation folder and schedules shuttles and cars.
  • The hotels manager goes into the hotels folder and begins coordinating lodging.
  • The scheduling manager goes into the scheduling folder and color codes each responder according to meal preferences
  • … etc.

“So [if I were a responder], I travel in, I have my ride, I have my hotel, the morning we get to the shelter I have my schedule,” says Lopez.

By the end of the response, Lopez says, eight FIR managers will have managed hundreds of responders.

“Five years ago it took 18 people to manage 90,” Lopez says. “Now we manage hundreds with eight. So we all kind of share a brain, instead of having to share ideas with each other’s brain. Now the knowledge is institutional and always there.”

So you could say the ASPCA is all about love … but that love is powered by efficiency.

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