Many children in Chelsea know the Dalmatian rarely absent from Chelsea Fire and Rescue Lt. Don Williamson’s side as their Hero. For nine years, Hero visited their classrooms and showed them how to stop, drop and roll during a fire. He greeted them at the annual Chelsea Christmas Parade and looked for their waves as he rode by in the city’s fire trucks regularly, his spotted head stuck out of a window almost every time. He sat patiently as children petted him, hugged him and surveyed his black spots, never tiring of the interactions that sealed his place in Chelsea’s history as the fire department’s most loved K-9 member likely to ever serve.
Two months ago, near his 10th birthday on Dec. 21, Hero was honorably discharged from the fire service, and he started his retirement at Williamson’s home. Although Hero’s days of school visits and public appearances are finished, his special bond with the people he has met over the last decade is unending.
Finding the Right Dog
Nine years ago, Williamson floated the idea of Chelsea having a firehouse dog to Fire Chief Wayne Shirley. Williamson talked to several different fire departments, including Pelham’s, about the concept of having a K-9 representative that would be trained to interact with people in the community, particularly children, and relay fire safety messages in a memorable way. With adequate sponsorships, the dog would be employed at no cost to the city.
“He (Shirley) saw the potential of that dog making that connection with children,” Williamson says. “When that idea was presented to him, he jumped all over it.”
Thus, Chelsea’s Our Firehouse Dog Program was born. The dog chosen for the program was to represent the fire service in Chelsea and to promote fire education through various outlets.
Margaret Davis with Creative Dog Training agreed to be the dog’s trainer as long as she was allowed to select the dog and make sure its temperament was appropriate for being around young children.
“She knew what she was looking for,” Williamson says. “We couldn’t have done it without her.”
A professional show breeder for Dalmatians in Pelham heard about the department’s search for a firehouse dog and contacted Williamson about a 1-year-old Dalmatian he had that was automatically disqualified from being a show dog because he had a solid black ear, which is considered an irregularity in the spot pattern.
“Margaret spent time with him, and it turned out to be the perfect dog,” Williamson says.
Davis spent several months training Hero before releasing him to the fire department full-time. Sponsors were secured for other parts of the program, including Hero’s supplies and medical care. Chelsea Animal Hospital and Vestavia Hills Animal Clinic were his veterinary clinics; Tractor Supply and Walmart provided his food; and PetSmart provided miscellaneous pet supplies. Only one fundraiser was held annually for Hero’s program: Fire at the Foothills BBQ and Chili Cook-Off. A friendly debate between Chelsea residents Scott Weygand and Dr. Justin Fogo about whose chili tasted better turned into this community event, the proceeds of which benefited Hero.
“That was the only money he needed for incidentals,” Williamson says.
As overseer of the Our Firehouse Dog Program, Williamson has been Hero’s handler from the beginning, accompanying him to schools and events, and taking him home at the end of each shift. Hero visited preschools, daycare facilities and elementary and middle school classrooms. He performed “stop, drop and roll” drills on command, showed students how to crawl out of a house during a fire and demonstrated how to test a smoke detector by pressing a button.
“The first couple of years, we went to other cities,” Williamson says. “We’d go to schools outside of Chelsea a couple of times.”
But the requests for visits outside of Chelsea became too numerous to fulfill. The city alone kept Hero so busy that Williamson lost track of the total number of outings Hero logged in his nine-year stint with the fire department. When asked for a rough estimate of visits, Williamson’s response was, “Wow. Over nine years … thousands.”
Living Up to His Name
Hero was named by the people he was trained to serve: Children. Chelsea Fire & Rescue held a name contest at Chelsea Park Elementary School. By the end of the contest, the department had received 150 responses from students with suggested names for the dog.
“We had three pages of names,” Williamson says. “Out of all those names, we chose ‘Hero’ because we thought it would best represent the kids. All those kids that helped name the dog are either in high school or graduated. A lot of them maintained contact (with Hero), which was cool.”
In nine years of service, Hero “didn’t do anything but curl up and lick and kiss the kids,” Williamson says, adding he is “just plain likable.”
“It’s almost like he would recognize kids,” he says. “He just created an instant bond with everybody he met, and he’s just about as likable as you can get.”
Hero seemed to surpass even the most respected community members in popularity.
According to Williamson, former Chelsea Mayor Earl Niven once said, “That dog’s more popular than I am!”
Sometimes, Hero’s impact on children surfaced outside of the classroom setting.
In the program’s early years, when the fire department accepted individual donations for Hero, a woman called to say her child had received birthday money and wanted to give it to Hero as a gift.
“When I found that out, I put Hero in the pickup, and we went by and paid that little boy a visit,” Williamson says. “He got one-on-one time with Hero and a stuffed animal. That somebody made that kind of connection with him, that was fun.”
Williamson says he will never forget the day Hero became the subject of a spontaneous connect-the-dots activity. Williamson was talking to someone in front of Chelsea City Hall, and after a few minutes, he realized the person’s child was drawing lines between the black spots on Hero’s coat with a blue Magic Marker.
“He had connected about half a dozen dots before we realized he was writing on the dog,” Williamson says, laughing. “He was getting his dots connected, and he didn’t even know it. Hero had to get several baths.”
The only time Williamson remembers Hero upsetting someone was three years ago, when he ate a little girl’s slice of pizza at Chelsea Day.
“We did buy her a new piece of pizza,” Williamson says, laughing again. “I guess we had gone a little too long without feeding him.”
The most rewarding part of being Hero’s handler, Williamson says, was watching children’s faces light up when they were around Hero.
“I feel like he really helped us get a fire safety message out for nine years,” Shirley says. “Lt. Williamson did a fine job with him and getting the message out.”
To Williamson’s knowledge, Hero was the only true firehouse Dalmatian in the state that was a registered member of the fire department.
“He represented the city well,” Williamson says. “Our breeder said, ‘You will know when it’s time to retire him because he’ll get old and slow,’ and eventually old and slow gets cranky. So, we ended the program on a good note.”
The question Williamson has been asked the most since Hero retired is whether Chelsea will get another firehouse dog.
“The answer is ‘no,’” he says. “He was such the right fit for the program we honestly think we can’t duplicate it. It was that good.”
Williamson knows this answer isn’t what many people want to hear. Hero’s absence in the community—and at the fire stations—will be felt for a long time. “Our own guys are going to miss him, too,” he says.
When he was at the stations, Hero grew so accustomed to seeing the firefighters board the fire engines when the emergency tone sounded that he followed suit and went on many of the calls with them.
Shirley says Hero often did rounds through the office to “check on things” and make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be.
“He was so smart,” Shirley says. “He had his own firefighter’s badge on his harness he wore for all of his public appearances. He kept that as a souvenir.”
To cap off Hero’s farewell tour in November and December, Shirley insisted Hero ride on a float with Williamson in the Chelsea Christmas Parade, his last public event before he retired.
Shirley commended Williamson and his family for taking care of Hero daily and enabling him to carry out his fire department duties.
“I’ve got three girls, and they love that dog to death,” Williamson says. “Hero kept them busy. He is living the happy life on his dog bed in front of my fireplace.”
“I loved seeing him at events and doing his thing, spending time with the kids, but I’m glad he’s getting an opportunity now to just be a pet,” Shirley says. “Like any retired firefighter, he’s always welcome to come by the firehouse and visit.”
The end of Hero’s tenure isn’t too far from Williamson’s impending retirement from the fire service. “I’ll be retiring in about two-and-a-half to three years. I’ve been a fireman since I was 18, and I’m ready to go do something different.”
As two first-timers to a firehouse dog program, Williamson and Hero can look back on the last decade with appreciation for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the positive impact it had on the Chelsea community.
“Everybody stuck with the program for nine years because they saw what it was doing,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun. And I can look back on a meaningful career. There’s not a day I didn’t look forward to coming to work.”
KNOW YOUR K-9
Handler: Lt. Don Williamson
Career: Nine years as first firehouse dog in Chelsea
Interests: Spending time with kids, eating and napping
Special Talents: Demonstrating “stop, drop and roll” and pushing a smoke detector button on command