by Soojin Um
When we think of firefighters, we think of trucks and engines, ladders and hoses, but we also think of Dalmatians. Why is that? It’s a question that pops up here and there, but more often it’s just taken for granted. That’s too bad because the history of Dalmatians and fire departments is very interesting. It’s not really about firefighters themselves, but rather how firefighting used to be done. It’s also a heartwarming tale of how a tradition was passed on, even if now it only serves as a symbol.
Before their connection to the fire service, Dalmatians had a long connection with horses. It’s not known exactly why or how, but Dalmatians have always had an affinity for horses. They’re able to calm horses, which made these dogs very valuable to have around throughout history. In England, they were known as coach dogs, where they were used to keep the carriage-pulling horses in line. Dalmatians would run beside the carriage or coach in support of the horses. They also protected the horses from other animals (including other dogs) and from horse thieves.
Fire departments in the age of the horse used horse-drawn carriages as well. They carried pump engines, ladders, buckets, as well as the firemen. It made sense for fire brigades to have Dalmatians on hand for the horses. Horses are especially afraid of fire, and having the dogs there to calm them in those stressful situations was a great benefit. From that, it became almost mandatory for fire brigades to have Dalmatians for this very purpose.
Another important function they performed was as the fire department siren. When a call came in, the dogs would start barking, alerting all those nearby that the firemen and the carriages were about to go out. As they ran along the carriages, the barking continued, paving the way for them like modern sirens do.
In modern times, there are, obviously, no more horse-drawn carriages. We have engines and trucks, we have sirens and radios, and it’s next to impossible to steal the fire vehicles. One would be forgiven to assume there is no longer a functional purpose for these magnificent dogs. Ah, but there is. Tradition. That is not a trivial thing. Institutions, such as the military, police, and fire, rely heavily on tradition. It’s what gives them their identity and purpose. It’s also what allows them to honor the past and pass the torch. They are symbols of the fire service, they promote this heroic profession. Kids love them, and Dalmatians are often a part of fundraising campaigns. So a functional purpose? Absolutely they still fulfill an important role. And if nothing else, as a wise man once said, they’re “still nice to look at.”
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