Fire department takes care of 'family' in its legendary dog

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 11, 2012 

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Hilton Head Island's long-smoldering love for Spanner the dog was reignited recently in an unusual place -- his grave.

Spanner was a household name in 11 years as a fire department mascot in the 1970s and '80s.

David A. MacLellan, the first paid fire chief on the island, wrote, "Official duties of a fire department mascot include: Guarding the fire station; greeting visitors; teaching children to stop, drop and roll; and barking at the moon."

Spanner could do all that and more. He rode in parades, wearing a little fire hat. He was the star of the annual May Carnival at his home at Station 1 on Cordillo Parkway. He could curl up his lips and shake his head to express displeasure with cigarettes, and he could put a cigarette out by pawing at it on the ground until he knocked the fire out of it.

"He was really a public-education dog," said former Capt. Michael Hay of Bluffton, who served with the department from 1976 to 1995.

"I took Spanner to classrooms," Hay said. "I told the children about stop, drop and roll and then I'd say, 'I'm going to have Spanner show you how to do that. Roll, boy, roll.' I had kids 10 years later ask me about Spanner."

Spanner could sit, speak, stay, roll over, fetch, catch Frisbees and punch a button to get a Coke from a machine. His picture was in Firehouse magazine.

In 1976 Spanner was attacked by an alligator. Firehouse legend has it that the gator was a 6- to 8-footer -- and Spanner put out one of its eyes.

"He was hit by a car in 1979, after mooching at the Western Sizzlin' Steak House," MacLellan wrote. "He was bitten by several snakes during the years, and ran away from home at times with his girlfriends."

'Therapy dog'

Spanner grew up with the Sea Pines-Forest Beach Fire Department, a forerunner of the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division. He was born Oct. 13, 1974, during Fire Prevention Week, about the same time the department opened its new Station 1 on Cordillo Parkway.

He was a Dalmatian, given to the department at seven weeks by Dinah Taylor. His name came from the spanner wrench firefighters use to loosen fire hose couplings and get the cap off fire hydrants.

Dalmatians at one time helped keep teams of horses separate as they pulled fire apparatus. Spanner took on other duties.

"You don't know what it's like to come back from a tough call and have that dog there to greet you and be so happy to see you and curl up on the sofa with you," Hay said.

It worked for others, as well.

"He was a therapy dog," Hay said. "He rode in the engine with us for years. If a child was in a wreck and his Mama was hurt, he'd start hugging Spanner and forget all about Mama being hurt."

Family

Spanner slowed down after being hit by the car. In his last month, he was in and out of the vet's office before dying of natural causes.

He was buried beside Station 1 on July 1, 1986, after a final ride around Pope Avenue Executive Mall in Engine 7. A fire department flag draped the wooden coffin firefighters made for him. About 50 people came to pay their last respects. The Island Packet covered it with a reporter and photographer. One of the two wreathes by his grave was shaped like a yellow fire hydrant.

Chief MacLellan read a poem about firehouse Dalmatians and said, "All in all, Spanner was the best dog, mascot and friend to all the firefighters and all who entered this fire station."

Almost a quarter century later, Spanner was not forgotten when the town replaced that old fire station.

The new $2.3 million station would cover Spanner's burial plot, but the fire department saw that it didn't happen.

Hay dug up Spanner's remains. He found them still wrapped in a red and black plaid blanket like the ones used then on the firefighters' bunks. Still inside the blanket was Spanner's bowl and favorite toy. Hay kept Spanner's remains on his porch during construction. He built him a new coffin, and the contractor provided a vault.

Capt. Janet Peduzzi, who heads Station 1, didn't know Spanner personally, but knows of his importance.

"He was part of the fire department family," she said. "The fire department is all about family. We spend a third of our lives together, at least. We're about taking care of each other, taking care of our own. Spanner's still part of our family. It's important to pass that history along, and to know where we came from and who got us here."

A framed photograph of Spanner hangs by the front door of the new station. So does a portrait of another member of the family, fire apparatus operator Ken Ross, who died of cancer in 2004.

The brass fire poles and the number "1" from the old firehouse are incorporated into the new building for the busiest of the island's seven fire stations.

And so is a new grave for Spanner, in a peaceful grove by the front parking lot.

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