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Paul Dean

No Spot for Dalmatians at the Fire House

December 27, 1986|Paul Dean

Dalmatians, spunky sidekicks of firefighters since steam pumpers and leather helmets, have descended from purposeful worker to warm mascot into cold history.

There hasn't been a fire dog among the 104 stations of the Los Angeles City Fire Department since last year.

There's a brass pole and old horse stalls and even a retired county firefighter (Jim Adams) managing the relics at 101-year-old Fire Station 1 (open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends) at Plaza Historical Park. But no Dalmatian.

Kelly no longer snuffles around Hollywood's Fire Station 27. Girl Dog has gone from Fire Station 32 on Beverly Boulevard. So, incidentally, has the station disappeared.

Sparky (who paid for part of his bed and board through stud fees) was killed by a hit-and-run driver while on a morning meander near Fire Station 103 in Northridge.

(For the anthropomorphic among us, elderly Sparky, 10 years old and no longer nimble enough to ride the ladder truck, was crossing Lindley Avenue to check out a retirement home under construction.)

In the county: one dog. But he's at a fire suppression camp.

In the country: "A few . . . their demise began when we went into motorized vehicles," explained a spokesman for the International Assn. of Fire Fighters. "Too many dogs were being run over and it got to be a heart-rending situation for the guys."

That's one explanation for the reduction to a spotted few. Inspector Ed Reed of the Los Angeles City Fire Department has another. "They shed like crazy and most firemens' uniforms are black."

Dogs became standard fire equipment in the mid-1800s when man-tugged hand pumps moved over for horse-drawn steam pumpers. Any pooch fearless of hoofs was adopted to run interference (mostly against other dogs wanting to join in the excitement) for galloping teams.

At fires, dogs would calm the horses. At stations, they would settle the animals for the next alarm. It wasn't until the 1920s that Dalmatians, famed by temperament as coach dogs, went on municipal payrolls.

But yesterday, Reed recounted, firefighters lived at their stations and played a lot of checkers. Today, they work as platoons in 24-hour cycles. When not fighting fires there are drills and fire prevention work and higher training and that allows little time for dogs.

Encroached, big city fire stations no longer come with grassy yards and shade trees. Dogs have retained their affinity for both.

"Stations are free to adopt a dog," Reed added, "but it's impractical because of the problems."

Reed remembers one such problem. He was attached to Fire Station 21 across from Hooper Avenue Elementary School. Mother was the name of its Dalmatian. She had an addiction.

"She'd steal the kids' lunches and come back with peanut butter and jelly all over her face," said Reed. "I'd have to go to the school, apologize and bring the kid to have a free lunch over at the fire station.

"Next day, all the kids would walk past the station waving sack lunches at Mother in hopes of getting lunch at the fire station."

On the other hand there was Sparky, a nonpareil among fire dogs.

He slept among the red rigs and was first on the truck when the alarm yelled. Sparky was newspaper bearer, security guard, talisman and a community relations focus more beloved than Lassie. Then, after seven years of service to Fire Station 103, the last fire dog in the city was killed.

There was, however, a replacement. KTLA-TV thought enough of the story potential to research Sparky's lineage. A young Dalmatian from the same bloodline was obtained and presented with proper pomp and televised circumstance to the fire station.

That's the News at 10 and fade to the theme from "Towering Inferno". . . .

Not quite. After six weeks, the firefighters sent Sparky II back to his breeder. "He just didn't have the personality or aptitude to make it around here," Gustafson reported.

In truth, fire trucks scared the dog to death and he cowered in a corner every time the bell rang.

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