Firehouse Dogs Promote Fire Safety

Wilkinsburg, PA, Fire Chief Sammie Coley wasn't as eager as his firefighters were when they asked to adopt a ragged, collie-sized, mixed- breed dog a good samaritan carried into their station half-frozen to death during a brutal winter storm. "I felt...


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Wilkinsburg, PA, Fire Chief Sammie Coley wasn't as eager as his firefighters were when they asked to adopt a ragged, collie-sized, mixed- breed dog a good samaritan carried into their station half-frozen to death during a brutal winter storm.

"I felt it would be neat at first but then for the long haul I felt that everyone wouldn't continue to pitch in and care for her," Coley said. "I just didn't want her to be a burden for anybody."

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Photo by Justin Lane
"Spanner," mascot of the Swissvale, PA, Fire Department, visits local schoolchildren.

But for his crew, he cut a deal. The agreement now is paying off for the entire suburban Pittsburgh community, especially its children. "As a way of earning her keep, I told them the dog could be trained to use in the fire prevention program. Then I'd consider (keeping her)," Coley explained.

"Smokey" now is a star, teaching youngsters what to do in emergencies. On command (and for a cookie), she stops, drops to her shaggy brown belly and rolls onto her back repeatedly, simulating the "stop, drop and roll" technique humans should use if caught on fire.

When Firefighter Chip Peterson taps a door and yells "Hot!" Smokey rears up on her hind legs and throws her front paws against the door, showing kids how to feel their door during a fire to see if it's hot. If it is hot, they should find another way out, firefighters tell them.

Firefighters have always had an affinity for dogs, most commonly the typical Dalmatians, since the days canines served as four-legged sirens, running ahead on unpaved streets to alert traffic with their presence and barks that a horse-drawn fire wagon was coming.

Dalmatians were bred as coach dogs. They were kept in firehouses to run with the fire horses, guard the horses and wagons and keep the stables clean of rodents. Some dogs would even venture into burning buildings with their firefighter pals. With the advent of motor power, however, the horses were replaced. The dogs stayed, for a time merely as mascots. Now, like Smokey, their new chore is to teach children fire safety. They are a natural focal point for young kids, who relate better to dogs performing than to firefighters explaining. The dogs aren't limited to Dalmatians anymore, either. Wilkinsburg always has used mixed breeds.

In Springfield, MO, Carolyn Krause's Dalmatians have earned ranking positions in the city fire department, complete with badges, because of their work in local schools, day cares and hospitals. "Becky the Firedog" appeared on billboards, videos, calendars and television promoting fire safety. She taught children for 10 years, achieving the rank of captain. She was buried with a fire department honor guard when she died in mid-1995.

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Photo supplied by Carolyn Krause
"Becky the Firedog" helped teach fire safety to children for 10 years, achieving the rank of captain.

Becky was succeeded by "Poppy," age 6. Poppy now is the one who holds a smoke detector in her mouth as firefighters explain to the children what they are and their importance. Poppy likewise snatches a banner bearing the simple, life-saving code 911 during that portion of the presentation.

But like Smokey, perhaps the most important aspect of Poppy's work is when she actually demonstrates for the children what they should do in case of fire. Dalmatians and many other breeds are extremely intelligent and energetic, and with the proper training can perform seemingly amazing tricks.

On the command "Smoke," Poppy hunches down and crawls on the floor, showing kids how to "get low and go" during fires. "You can even have the dogs and kids crawl under a sheet that people hold to simulate smoke," Krause said. "We do as much work with the dog as space allows."

But the afternoon isn't just an enjoyable one for the students that's forgotten when they trek home. Each receives a postcard of the dog and a firefighter, stamped on the back with Poppy's paw-print autograph. Children are told to give the card to an adult at home and check the batteries in their smoke detectors. They also are told to request a home fire drill that day. Such simple and perhaps startling requests from a young child are likely to snap adults to attention to complete such tasks.

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