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Chicago's Firehouse Dogs

Thirty, from the cover of 'The Firefighter's Best Friend'
Thirty, from the cover of 'The Firefighter's Best Friend'

They answer the fire bell, throw themselves into dangerous situations, and impress the neighborhood children -- all for a pat on the head and usually with a wag of the tail.

Firehouse dogs -- a staple of Norman Rockwell's Americana -- are still on the job in many towns and cities. But perhaps nowhere is the tradition as strong as Chicago. Brothers Drew and Trevor Orsinger tell the story of some of the Windy City's most dogged public servants in their new book, The Firefighter's Best Friend.

The long association of dogs with firehouses began in England almost 200 years ago. In the days of horse-drawn firefighting equipment, Dalmations helped calm their equine companions. The dogs also proved useful as ratters, a role many still perform in contemporary Chicago.

In the past century, dogs began to play a more prominent role on fire scenes, sometimes with remarkable results. The Orsingers tell NPR's Liane Hansen that Felix, born in 1910, was credited with leading a confused crew of firefighters out of one dangerous blaze. At another, he barked furiously until his human companions returned to a burning house to fetch an infant that no one else realized was inside.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Orsingers' book go to the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance Burn Camp.

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Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.