Grant money buys Ala. fire department robotic Sparky the Fire Dog

Tenders Info

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Service will soon have a new member to help teach students about fire safety.

The City Council approved the purchase of a robotic Sparky the Firedog on Tuesday at a cost of $8,669. The money was left over from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant.

"It's just a little different, an attention getter for the kids," Fire Chief Alan Martin said. "You know kids love those type things. They like dogs anyway, but you have the robot. It's kind of cool."

The grant was used to buy firefighting equipment, but the purchase came in under budget. Under FEMA rules, the remaining money could not be used to buy additional equipment, and could only be spent for educational purposes or returned, Martin said.

"They only allow you to use the money that's left over like that to purchase fire prevention, education type things," he said. "The grant wouldn't allow us to buy additional coats or anything like that."

The robot, which is made by Springville, Utah-based Robotronics, is a 3-foot-tall Dalmatian dressed in firefighter gear and driving a fire truck. It features a built-in MP3 player and loudspeaker, so an operator can drive the truck while talking to children through the loudspeaker and staying out of sight.

The fire department already owns a Sparky the Firedog costume and hopes to get the robot the by Labor Day.

"We saw the demo about two years ago actually, but we didn't have the money to buy it," Martin said. "When the opportunity came available to use some of the grant money, we decided to buy it."

Karen Helm, office manager for Robotronics, thinks that the robots are more effective at teaching children than a firefighter in uniform or a Sparky costume.

"A fireman can stand back and carry on a two-way experience with the kids through the robot and the kids remember it because it's just so animated," Helm said. "It's wonderful for a person to stand up in front of the kids to teach, but if they have a tool like this to use they remember it better."

Alberta Elementary Principal Brenda Parker, who has worked closely with the fire department for several years, expects her students to enjoy the new robot.

"I think it will just be an added dimension, a welcome addition to what they ve already done," she said. "We haven't had the experience yet, but I m sure the children will react positively to it."

The firefighters focus their educational efforts on students in kindergarten, second and fourth grades, and try to get to know the students, Parker said.

"We've had a three- or four-year relationship now with the fire department so we consider them friends," she said. "Many of the firefighters are fathers, as well, and it's obvious that they really care about the children. It's more than just an obligation."

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