Some things just naturally go together, and for more than a century, dogs and fire stations were two of those things. Today, not so much.
The tradition goes back to the days of horse-drawn fire engines, according to Lt. David Tyler of the Arlington Fire Department.
“The dogs were useful in alerting people that the fire engine was coming,” he says. “They were also comforting to the horses and kept them calm on the scene.”
Although Dallas fire stations no longer have official pet mascots, Dallas Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Jason Evans says there are some brave canines that help out at times.
Lt. Patti Krafft, who has been a Dallas firefighter for nearly 30 years, handles Billy, a live-find dog from Texas Task Force Two. She describes the dog as a playful, 5-year-old mix of Labrador, border collie and Australian shepherd. She and Billy were paired three years ago, and their most recent mission was in Canton after April's tornadoes.
The dog, a stray from North Dakota, was originally accepted into a National Disaster Search Dog Foundation program. Krafft says he was chosen partly because of his high drive for toy search, which can be transformed into rescue skills.
“They get strays or donated dogs and train them and then pair them to firefighters around the country at no cost to the fire department,” Krafft says. “[Billy] is always with me. He goes to the fire station with me and goes home with me. They’re willing to do anything for you. Part of that is the bond … you have to have control of the dog, and they have to trust you.”
While stray dogs may occasionally wander into fire stations, Krafft says things are not like they used to be when animals sometimes lived at the firehouses. And that’s partly because of policy and liability issues.
“Billy can go because of his job,” she says.
Texas Task Force Two has five other dogs including Sonic, a 10-year-old, black Labrador retriever rescued from a shelter in Las Vegas who also helped out in Canton. The dog was paired with Capt. Laurel Pitman seven years ago. Pitman, who has been with the Dallas Fire Department for 21 years, says the two are constantly together and must be ready when called.
“He searches for live victims trapped or buried, cutting the location time down to minutes,” she says.
Arlington keeps nine highly trained explosive ordinance detection K-9s on hand that protect millions of citizens and visitors, Tyler says, but the dogs stay with the bomb squad unit rather than at fire stations.
“If you visit a Cowboys, Rangers, or Wings game in Arlington, you will surely see them there,” he says.
Arlington’s firefighters went from “hand-drawn horse carts and chemical wagons straight to automotive fire apparatus, skipping the horse-drawn era,” Tyler says.
Although the city has no history of utilizing Dalmatians at its fire stations, Tyler found a 1960s-era photo of two firemen standing outside the bay door of station No. 5 with a healthy looking cat.
While none of the fire departments we talked with were aware of any local, official fire station dogs, some noted a Dalmatian that was given to the New York Fire Department after 9/11, as well as Sparkie, a Dalmatian given to the Frisco Fire Department.
Capt. Kevin Haines, the department’s spokesman, says the original Sparkie was a gift from Box Ranch (now Brinkmann Ranch) in the late 1980s after a fire that destroyed the Box family home. Sparkie lived at the Central Fire Station, and each dog that came after her was renamed Sparkie.
The most recent Sparkie was a rescue dog that came to the station in 2005 and lived there until it died of old age in 2012. Haines says Frisco’s Fire Station No. 2 also had a dog named Dottie until 2009.
Haines says that when Sparkie was given to the station in the late '80s, Frisco only had about 5,000 residents, and the department was largely volunteer with the same firefighters on call every day.
Now, with a population of more than 150,000, the station runs three shifts, which Haines says is hard on a dog because it’s almost like the dog has three sets of families.
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“The volunteers were around until 2012 when Sparkie passed away,” he says. “That was really when we transformed from volunteer and career to an all-career department.”
Haines, who once worked with the Plano Fire Department, says he does not recall any dogs that lived at its fire stations.
However, Plano is home to the Dalmatian Rescue of North Texas, which finds new owners for about 30 Dalmatians each year, according to Anne Rutledge, the organization’s president.
And “we do have firefighters that love to adopt the Dals,” she says.