It's a Fire Dog's Life
A retrospective of the life of my favorite fire dog. Or, why it’s a lot easier turning 60 when your best friend is doing it, too.
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
By Steve Dornbusch
You’ve probably heard the news by now, but Sparky®, NFPA’s official spokesdog, is celebrating his 60th birthday this year. Since my job title here at NFPA is Senior Project Manager for Public Education Products — otherwise known as “Sparky’s dad” — his birthday is a pretty big deal for me, and not just because I turned 60 this year, too.
Because of his spokesdog responsibilities — in print, on screen, and in big, furry real life — Sparky’s image, messages, and personality are very important. As I bring Sparky to life, I try to maintain strict standards for his appearance and how he’s represented in person and across many media. It’s important to maintain what I call “Sparky integrity.” Fire can be frightening to children, who are among those at highest risk from its dangers. So while I try to make Sparky fun and friendly, I’m also careful to show that he’s serious when he talks about the dangers of fire. To children, he’s an authority figure with an important message, but it’s important that he never be preachy.
Sparky’s had a lot of different looks over the years, and some were better than others. He’s gone from a simple black-and-white drawing to a computer-animated video character. When I came to NFPA, a little over 20 years ago, one of the first things I did was give him a makeover, updating his look and making sure his uniform was up to the latest code. That’s when folks starting calling me “Sparky’s dad.” My kids — I have two, besides Sparky — thought my work with NFPA’s fire dog was cool when they were very young, but as they got older they seemed a little embarrassed about what I did. But I think they came to realize how much it means to me to know I make a difference by teaching young children valuable fire safety messages. They also appreciate how much I enjoy the creative challenges of the job.
Some of those challenges were the result of donning the Sparky costume from time to time. One of my most embarrassing moments at NFPA occurred while I was appearing as Sparky. Let’s just say I couldn’t see very well while wearing a giant Dalmatian head, and I tripped over a small child and hit the deck. I tried to pretend it was part of the act — anything to advance the cause of fire safety.
I recently realized that, in my more than 20 years producing Fire Prevention Week products at NFPA, I have created and printed more than one billion pieces — stickers, brochures, posters, and more — with Sparky’s image and his messages. I know that Sparky has prevented fires and perhaps even saved lives. Like so many of my colleagues at NFPA, and like the thousands of NFPA members around the world, I’m happy to be making a difference; that’s what our jobs are all about. Here’s to Sparky and the next 60 years!
In the beginning …
It was 1951, and a loaf of bread cost 16 cents. The population of the United States was around 155 million. Smokey Bear was just seven years old. Harry S. Truman was in the White House and Alben W. Barkley (remember him?) was vice-president. NFPA numbered 13,469 members.
And it was the year Sparky the Fire Dog was born.
He was conceived at the 1950 NFPA Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the association announced that the Advertising Council had approved a national fire-prevention campaign to be launched in 1951, with NFPA as sponsor. The new initiative needed a symbol, and it was a no-brainer. Inspired by the success of Smokey Bear, the burly ursine symbol of the U.S. Forest Service, NFPA decided to create a Dalmatian character, using the dog traditionally associated with the fire service. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sparky has become a national figure and a beloved advocate for fire safety.
Thanks to changing times, styles, and influences in American culture and at NFPA, Sparky’s appearance and personality have evolved over the years. But his commitment to being NFPA’s spokesdog and communicator of life-saving messages, along with his pride in representing the fire service, has never wavered. Here’s a look at Sparky through the years.
The early days: The ‘50s + ‘60s
Back in his infancy, Sparky sometimes appeared stern and serious, even a bit of an alarmist — perhaps a reflection of the era, with its Cold War tensions and fear of the atom bomb. Sparky was using the tone and style of the time to tap into people’s concerns and fear of fire to reach them.
More so than today’s Sparky, this early Sparky bore a close resemblance to an actual Dalmatian, with a canine snout and a long tail. At the same time, though, he was a bit nattier than the average dog, frequently sporting a tie and button-down shirt. There was sometimes an air of improvisation about his appearance, since style guidelines dictating his appearance had yet to be developed; early costumed Sparkies occasionally had to settle for markings better suited to a leopard than a Dalmatian. Sparky lost his tail sometime in the early 1960s, and while still serious about teaching the dangers of fire, he was becoming less threatening with his messages.
The Times They Are A-Changin’: The ’70s + ’80s
From the break-up of the Beatles to the end of the Vietnam War to the introduction of the Walkman, the 1970s were a time of profound and rapid change in America, and Sparky followed suit. He started the 1970s pretty much unchanged from the ’50s and ’60s — and then, like society around him, he went through some radical changes. While he continued teaching important fire-safety messages, his entire look changed. His appearance was influenced by pop art and the trends of the times, from bellbottoms to flower-power prints. At times, he looked like something from a pop-art poster, with heavy dark lines, little detail, and simple flat colors. Like a lot of us, Sparky sometimes cringes when he looks back at the fashions of the day.
But as society pulled back from the excesses of the era toward the end of the decade, Sparky also returned to what he was all about: being a firedog. He began to look a little less canine and a bit more like a firefighter, with his Timberland-style boots, cuffed jeans, and suspenders. This new no-nonsense look, which he took into the ’80s, marked the beginning of the current Sparky era.
Sparky’s Back: The ’80s + ’90s
By the late ’80s, NFPA had changed. We had moved from our longtime location in downtown Boston to our current headquarters in Quincy, Massachusetts. Our membership was around 50,000 and growing fast, and the influence of our codes and standards was growing, too. While Sparky was still making occasional appearances as the spokesdog for our educational messages, his role had begun to shrink. Dick Van Dyke was doing our famous public service announcements for television. Sparky seemed outdated, a relic of a bygone era.
But there were a few people at NFPA with the foresight to realize that Sparky still had plenty of potential. It was time to take Sparky out of the dog house and get him back to doing what he did best — teaching children about fire safety.
Happily, this renewed interest in Sparky coincided with my arrival at NFPA, and one of my first tasks was to give Sparky a makeover while developing a strict style guide to help him maintain his good looks. Although Sparky had always had “a look” over the years, there had also been a lot of latitude in how it was interpreted. Because we wanted to create a familiar, consistent image for his appearance and his brand, Sparky’s appearance has remained mostly unchanged since his makeover was completed in 1989.
A Modern Dog for Modern Times: The ’00s + Beyond
Sparky’s only undergone a few nips and tucks since the big makeover; he’s currently drawn with a lighter, smoother line, to give him a more contemporary look, and he’s jumped on the physical-fitness bandwagon for a more “buff” bod. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he protects that bod with turnout gear that is fully compliant with the provisions of NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.
Sparky’s makeover has extended beyond his appearance; it also includes his personality. Although he’s still serious when it comes to his messages, gone is the stern and sometimes harsh attitude that he adopted in his youth. He’s become a kinder, gentler Sparky, emphasizing positive messaging in a way that’s more appealing to children.
So here we are, trying to figure out where to stick the last few candles in the cake. Thanks, Sparky, for doing your job so well for the past 60 years. Happy birthday, Sparky!
Over the years, Sparky has had the opportunity to meet many celebrities. He showed off his firefighter strength by carrying the young actress Anne Francis (top) down a staircase in the 1950s. He’s made appearances with TV stars like Dennis the Menace actor Jay North and a fellow famous dog, Lassie. He rubbed elbows with politicians like Senator Ted Kennedy. He even got to throw out the first pitch at a major league baseball game.
But the people he enjoys meeting most aren’t the A-listers — it’s the thousands of children he’s met and helped over the years, kids who’ve grown up and still have a strong attachment to Sparky and his message. And that’s the kind of long-lasting magnetism most celebs can only dream of.
It’s been quite a year for Sparky. Not only is he celebrating his 60th birthday, with a cake made in his honor by TLC’s “Cake Boss,” he also has a new children’s book and stars in a new movie.
In Sparky the Fire Dog (Imagine/Charlesbridge, available October 1, $7.95), written by the best-selling team of author Don Hoffman and illustrator Todd Dakins, Sparky takes a group of young animals through the neighborhood, pointing out hazards, giving basic fire prevention and safety tips, and demonstrating how to be prepared in case of an emergency. From smoke alarms to candle safety to making sure there are two ways out of every room, Sparky’s advice might be the most important fire safety lesson children — and their parents — ever learn. What makes this book even more special is that, for the first time, Sparky will be available directly to the general public. Books will be available at bookstores everywhere, as well as through Amazon.com, and in libraries.
And on the movie front, Sparky and the Runaway Robot features a computer-animated Sparky (voiced by Tennessee firefighter Barry Brickey, winner of NFPA’s recent “Voice of Sparky” contest) mixing with live-action characters. This madcap adventure tells the story of a robot who short circuits, races out of the fire station, and becomes an uninvited guest at the home of a family getting ready for a birthday party. All sorts of vital safety lessons are covered while Sparky and his buddies pursue the crazy robot. It’s lots of fun and a great way to spread fire safety messages to both children and adults, during Fire Prevention Week and throughout the entire year. Cost is $295, $265 for NFPA members.
Snap this QR code with your smart phone to watch a preview of Sparky’s new video. No QR reader? Get your free download from the app store, or view it at nfpa.org/sparkyvideo.
In this Section:
|Fire Loss in the United States During 2010
U.S. fire departments responded to 1,331,500 fires, a decrease of 1.3 percent from the previous year.
|Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fires in 2010
Last year, 29 multiple-death fires in the United States killed 175 people, including 30 children.
|Catastrophic Multiple-Death Fire Incidents
A breakdown of all the 2010 multiple-death fires.
|Nowhere to Go
Fire safety is a constant concern at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, a research outpost 830 miles from the South Pole.
|It's a Fire Dog's Life
A look at the life of Sparky the Fire Dog®, who turned 60 this year, by his best friend.