The story be­hind Sparky

The Glengarry News - Glengarry Supplement - - News -

Af­ter nearly 65 years, Sparky the Fire Dog may be the most rec­og­niz­able mas­cot in the world. This ret­ro­spec­tive is writ­ten by Steve Dorn­busch, Se­nior Pro­ject Man­ager with the Amer­i­can Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion (NFPA).

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.

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 AChangin’: 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.

By the late ’ 80s, NFPA had changed. It had moved from its long­time lo­ca­tion in down­town Bos­ton to its cur­rent head­quar­ters in Quincy, Mas­sachusetts. Its mem­ber­ship was around 50,000 and grow­ing fast, and the in­flu­ence of its codes and stan­dards was grow­ing, too. While Sparky was still mak­ing oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ances as the spokes­dog for NFPA’s ed­u­ca­tional mes­sages, his role had be­gun to shrink. Dick Van Dyke was do­ing the as­so­ci­a­tion’s 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.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.