Following is a first person account of the hugely successful National Fire Dog Monument’s journey form Denver, Colorado to Washington DC from American Humane Association’s own Scott Sowers. This is the second of six installments.
A special weekend in the Midwest with the National Fire Dog Monument
By Scott Sowers
After a brief layover in Hays, day two of our cross-country tour showing off the National Fire Dog Monument would see us in the capital of the Sunflower State, Topeka. Our semi-truck and RV set up shop directly in front of the capitol building, which made for a very picturesque backdrop. We were honored to be joined by arson dog handlers from across Kansas and Missouri, who all knew they wanted to be there to see this spectacular statue in person.
In all there were six dogs on stage posing for a picture with the monument, but the dogs thought there was one more – the bronze dog is so lifelike looking that a couple of arson dogs actually barked at it. Our artist, Austin Weishel, tells the story that when he was sculpting it out of clay, Sadie – who had been posing for it for hours on end – left the room, and when she returned she walked up to the rear end of the clay model and proceeded to sniff it. He was proud to have her fooled.
Remarks in Topeka were handled by Terry Mabel, the Kansas State Fire Marshal. He recognizes the important work these dogs do every day in bringing arsonists across his state to justice. His office has two teams of dogs and handlers that cover the state; one of those teams, Rose Rozmiarek and her Yellow Lab Tana joined up with us in Topeka for the remainder of the journey. Now we have the option to ride in supreme comfort in their RV along with Rose’s husband Gary, their Australian Shepherd Onyx, and a bird named Quincy.
As we began to pack up our rig for the next city, a former arson dog handler offered to pick up some barbecue for us from a small food truck owned by a friend of his. Once we got everything stowed away (we’d become real pros at it by then!) we sat by the steps of the capitol eating some fine Kansas pulled pork and brisket.
We were off for Jefferson City, Missouri, the capital of the Show Me State. Jefferson City is a unique state capital in that it is a very small town, just a fraction of the size of Kansas City and St. Louis. Regardless, the capitol is gorgeous, situated on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River. This would be the first tour stop of day three. Members of the Missouri Fire Marshal’s Office, the Jefferson City Fire Department, and a crowd of locals all came out to see the monument and hear its story. At each stop we pick different people to do their best Vanna White impression and whip off the sheet to unveil the monument. Here we had on hand Don Gosen, a state legislator from the 84th District, and a State Farm agent to boot.
Our timing had to be perfect, because we still had two more shows to do on Saturday. We hit the road for O’Fallon, a suburb of St. Louis because an arson dog handler in their police department, Andy Stowers, just had to have us pull over since we were driving through. He organized a great group of firemen and police officers from all over the metro area to come out and see the monument – their monument, because that’s what this tour is all about. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as long as we liked, because we needed to venture across the Mississippi River into Illinois and on to its capital city, Springfield.
Once again we were afforded the opportunity to set up our dog and pony (well, just dog in this case) show with the capitol building in the background. This time, however, luck would have it we would be immediately adjacent to the Illinois State Firefighters Memorial, honoring those who have fallen in the line of duty. Jerry Means, the founder of the NFDM, however, often reminds us that we are bringing a monument, not a memorial, to Washington. We are not simply honoring those dogs who have passed. No, this is to pay tribute to those who have been, are currently, or will ever be arson dogs. Every time you turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper there is seemingly nothing but bad news. A major goal of this monument is to be a celebration of these dogs’ accomplishments, hard work, and valor.
In Springfield we were joined by Larry Matkaitis, the State Fire Marshal. He surprised us by letting us know he would be following us throughout his state, joining us at our two stops the following day. After a small but dedicated group of onlookers had their chance to see and feel the monument up close and learn all the details from Jerry and Austin, we packed it in for what will likely be the last early night of the tour – we are booked solid until we roll into the District of Columbia on Thursday.
A long restful night gave way to a short haul up to Bloomington, the national headquarters for State Farm Insurance, American Humane Association’s co-sponsors on the tour. As I mentioned in my previous post, State Farm has several decades under its belt managing their Arson Dog program, which gives state agencies across the country the dogs and training needed to solve the toughest cases. They knew that while the easiest way to get the NFDM from Denver to DC would be to pack it in a crate and ship it cross country, that wasn’t the best way. No, we needed to bring this monument to the people, telling the stories of arson dogs and their importance in helping to save lives, prevent damage to homes and other properties, and put convicted criminals behind bars.
Each stop thus far came with a healthy dose of sunshine and heat. Thankfully, Sunday morning’s stop in Bloomington would come with considerable cloud cover and markedly cooler temperatures. This would prove to be our biggest crowd yet, with a healthy stream of State Farm employees, firefighters and others coming throughout our three hour stop. Those clouds would eventually open up and bring some welcome rain for Central Illinois, but perhaps not as welcome as our crew would’ve liked. Regardless, the crowds did not subside.
Bloomington would also be our first chance to see the arson dogs in action, with Sadie and Tana performing a series of demos. Even when not on duty, arson dogs need to train every day to keep their skills sharp, because every investigation comes with different variables. An astonishing fact I learned on Sunday is that arson dogs will never eat from a food bowl during their working lives (approximately 10 years following a couple years of training, after which they’ll live out their retirement as a family pet). Instead, their handlers carry their food with them in pouches, and use a handful at a time as a reward for detecting an accelerant – a chemical used to start a fire, such as gasoline, kerosene, or diesel fuel.
For the first demo, known as scent discrimination, a wheel was placed on the ground with empty buckets on the end of each spoke. In the buckets are placed burned materials that a dog would commonly encounter at a fire scene. One of these cans is the “hot can,” that which has a dab of an accelerant. The dog is told to seek out the accelerant, and when they find it they will firmly place their bottom on the ground and point with their nose to the offending scent. The wheel is then spun so the dog doesn’t remember the hot can’s placement, and the procedure begins again.
For the next demo, Jerry handed me Sadie’s leash and instructed me to take her around the other side of our truck. He then lined up all the children in the audience and placed a dab of a chemical on one kid’s shoe. Sadie kept trying to cheat by peeking under the truck but I was able to thwart her attempts. Then Jerry had her walk the line until she correctly identified the “suspect.”
Regretfully, we eventually had to pack up for our second stop of the day, a trip up north to the Windy City and the Chicago Fire Academy. A flame at this venue indicates the site of the start of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – and no, it was not actually Mrs. O’Leary and her cow who did it. This facility is where prospective members of the Chicago Fire Department complete their training to serve and protect the Second City.
Our truck was positioned in an absolute perfect alignment with the Willis Tower – which will forever be known as the Sears Tower to my native Chicagoan friends. We couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque setting to end the weekend. Of course we were joined once more by the Fire Marshal and scores of firefighters from across the city, as well as arson investigators, and members of the press. Tana delighted the children with another wheel demo then let them all have a turn scratching her belly and getting licked on the face.
After a feast of Chicago-style hot dogs and fries on the picnic tables outside the academy, we strapped in and headed south for Indianapolis, the first of two stops on Monday, and our final two in the Midwest. As I sit in Rose’s RV on a couch opposite the dozing Tana, I can’t help but look over and be impressed for all she and arson dogs everywhere do for us, and why this monument is the least we can do to pay them back for their sacrifice.