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April 23, 2008

Sweet Story from the Herald Last Weekend (when I was out of town)

Lucky dog barks back to days past

rsamuels@MiamiHerald.com

Lucky is a dalmatian that's being trained by Frank Sullivan, 70, who was one of Miramar's first firefighters. Lucky is the fire rescue's latest mascot and will teach kids how to stop, drop and roll and crawl through smoke.
J. ALBERT DIAZ / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Lucky is a dalmatian that's being trained by Frank Sullivan, 70, who was one of Miramar's first firefighters. Lucky is the fire rescue's latest mascot and will teach kids how to stop, drop and roll and crawl through smoke.
Frank Sullivan watches his dog search through a swampy stretch of grass for a crow that just landed. A canal is behind them, then the six lanes leading to Interstate 75 and the tower for WTVJ-NBC 6.

''Lucky!'' he calls. ``Come here!''

From the thicket, the pup emerges with his tail wagging. Black spots sprinkle his chest. He jumps to lick his greeter. Sullivan tells Lucky to calm down, and he does. The pup sits with his chest pushed out, his new Miramar Fire-Rescue badge glinting in the sun.

''He just got out of obedience school,'' Sullivan said as Lucky slobbers on his hands. ``What a personality! A pedigree, through and through.''

Last month, Miramar officials named Lucky their third fire mascot, honoring the longtime link between Dalmatians and firefighters. He'll teach children how to stop, drop and roll, and crawl through smoke. The city always pairs the Dalmatians with Sullivan, 70, whose life holds the story of steadfast love and loyalty, a tale of man, his best friend and his dream job.

A cap covers Sullivan's thinning white hair. His hands seem surgically connected to the dog's red leash. Before Lucky, there was Buddy. Before Buddy, there was Ahren, the fire department's first mascot.

And before there was a fire department, there was Sullivan. He moved to South Florida in 1972 with a wife, three kids and a 1934 antique firetruck.

''Firefighting is in my blood,'' he said. ``I'm a third-generation firefighter. When we were growing up, they could hardly keep us out of the station. My brother became a firefighter, and my sister, she would have been a firefighter if they were allowed in those days.''

In 1975, Sullivan left his construction job to become one of Miramar's first paid firefighters. The force had four men. At the time, the area known as Miramar today was hardly even a sketch on an urban planner's desk. Prices were affordable, homes were on the east side, and there were farms and more trees and swamps in west Miramar.

''We did mostly brush fires back then,'' Sullivan recalled.

FIRST DALMATIAN

In 1992, Sullivan got a small Dalmatian puppy. He named her Ahren, after the manufacturer of his firetruck. Dalmatians are territorial mammals, so Sullivan often took Ahren out to help socialize her. It might not have been necessary, Sullivan said, because Ahren had an innate love for people. He began taking her to schools to encourage fire safety.

Ahren accompanied the department to fires. It was a tradition that started long ago, when firefighters rode in horse-drawn fire engines and Dalmatians guarded the horses.

''One time, this family had two kids, some birds, a fish, a dog and this little kitten,'' Sullivan said. 'We get them out of the fire, and the little girl's crying. She said, `We're missing a kitten.' ''

Sullivan sent Ahren into the house to find the kitten. Ahren crawled through the smoke, much like she taught the kids in school. Ahren found the kitten lodged between the refrigerator and the counter.

''The little girl was so happy,'' Sullivan said. ``The kids weren't concerned about their home. They were worried about the animals.''

The event gave Sullivan a new perspective. Firefighting is a relatively quick thrill, a rare rush of exhilaration and heroism. Truth be told, Sullivan could count on his hands the number of such death-defying incidents.

That night, watching the smile of a child holding a kitten, Sullivan experienced a different type of satisfaction. There is a profound connection that people have with animals, one deep and lasting.

Sullivan's body was also slowing down. Soon, his work with the Dalmatians would become the major way he would reach the people he longed to save from fires.

ENTER BUDDY

When Ahren died of natural causes in 2004, Sullivan was eager to take Buddy, who performed similar jobs. Sullivan recalls a career fair where someone came up and said:

``I remember when I was going to elementary school. That dog taught me to stop, drop and roll.''

Little did he know, Buddy was different from Ahren. Buddy was a boy -- and shy.

Mayor Lori Moseley attests to Buddy's reticence. When she was supposed to put the official fire badge around Buddy's neck during a council meeting, Buddy stepped back.

''That dog did not like me,'' she often recalls.

But Buddy was devoted to Sullivan. Then, one day, Buddy suffered a bad fall. The terrible injury forced Sullivan to put Buddy down.

''No one needs to talk about it,'' Sullivan said, his voice quiet, as Lucky lay at his feet. ``We had to do what's best for him. It was a tough time. I needed a lot of encouragement.''

One morning, an animal rescue shelter in Hollywood called the department to say they had just received a Dalmatian from Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was dying of heart worms. They asked the department if they were interested in adopting him. The dog -- who they estimated at about 2 years old -- had about four days to live, they said.

At first, Battalion Chief Bill Huff wasn't sure. The department still wasn't over Buddy's death.

Sullivan reluctantly went to the shelter to check on the dog. He looked so helpless inside the cage, so skinny that his rib cage protruded from his chest. But when Sullivan went closer to greet him, the dog's tail started wagging. His tongue cascaded from his mouth. He was a natural friend, just like Ahren.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

''It was love at first sight,'' Sullivan recalls.

They put him though a surgery, then fattened the dog up to a hearty 60 pounds. They considered a bevy of names: Halligan. Ariel. Killer. And then they thought, Lucky.

''Because we were lucky he survived,'' Sullivan said.

The night Lucky was officially named mascot of the Miramar Fire Department, he stood tall as the city's mayor placed his new badge around his neck.

''Oh, this one likes me!'' Moseley said at the meeting.

 

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