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Molly the fire safety Dalmatian leaves legacy of lifesaving lessons
With her red-painted nails, matching bandana and fire hat, Molly the Dalmatian earned a special spot in the hearts of children nationwide through fire safety education.
Since 9 weeks old, Molly helped Arkansas-based retired firefighter Dayna Hilton teach kids about home escape maps, crawling low under smoke and everything in between.
“Molly could test the smoke alarm with her nose,” said Hilton, who lives in the state FEMA ranked fourth for fire deaths. “We wanted them to recognize the sound and purpose of a smoke alarm.”
Copper storage disease claimed the 10-year-old dog’s life in December, a week and a half shy of reaching children in her 50th state of Idaho.
“I know Molly was looking down on us that day,” Hilton said.
Lifesaving fire safety lessons
For a decade, Hilton says she and Molly reached classrooms virtually – as far away as Russia – and traveled nearly 25,000 miles across the U.S. each year as part of the Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation, which Hilton began in 2009.
“Molly was a really smart dog, she loved to learn,” Hilton told USA TODAY.
She trained Molly – and her first Dalmatian, Sparkles the fire safety dog – to demonstrate crawling low and closing doors with their paws, as shut doors reduce fire spread.
“When we would talk about what to do (during) an actual fire, the dogs would be in a bed, I would put a cover over them and they would lay their head down,” Hilton said. “Whenever they heard the sound of the smoke alarm, they’d get out of bed, crawl out and we’d go to their meeting place, which was their mailbox.”
The lifesaving steps are better ingrained in a child’s mind with the help of a lovable visual aid such as Molly, Hilton said.
“There’s something that connects with a child much stronger than with myself,” she said. “They remember it, go home and share these tips with their families.”
A real-life impact
Before Hilton launched her foundation in 2009, she and her previous fire safety Dalmatian, Sparkles – who she says was the first dog to Skype a fire safety program – had already helped save lives.
A program they taught in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2006 stuck with two children involved in separate fires, according to Hilton. One of them, then 5-yearold Angelica, got herself and her father out of their burning home using instructions Sparkles and Hilton taught her a month prior.
“(Angelica) said, ‘I was under the covers and the smoke came, so I got out of bed, I crawled low just like Sparkles taught me to, and I looked back,’ ” Hilton recalled of the child’s account.
Angelica saw her father standing and told him to “crawl low like Sparkles,” Hilton said.
“Firefighters shared with me that when her dad got to the threshold, they scooped him up and took him away, and the minute they did that, the home became engulfed in flames,” Hilton said.
It was then that Hilton committed to dedicating her life to keeping children like Angelica safe.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” she said.
Fire safety legacy continues
Philicia McCauley, a former Keep Kids Fire Safe Foundation board chair whose late husband was badly injured in a house fire at 19, said Hilton and Boden’s continued fire safety efforts will remain crucial for kids.
“These children really did take in everything Dayna and Molly taught them,” McCauley said. “They go home and usually are able to persuade the whole family to talk about fire – and not only prevention, but what if a fire starts? How do we get out of the house? Where do we go?”
Molly, who took over the fire lessons after her predecessor Sparkles died in 2009, will now be succeeded by her brother, Boden. Boden and Hilton reached the foundation’s 50th state of Idaho on Jan. 13 during their virtual program for young children.
“He carried on in the paw prints of the dogs that came before him, it was just a big moment,” Hilton shared. “I was really proud of him.”