Don’t be surprised to find dog toys lying around Fire Station 107. The Canyon Country firehouse is the first in the Los Angeles County Fire Department to welcome a comfort dog to its team.
Echo is a 4-year-old yellow Labrador. She joined the department last June thanks to Jake Windell, a firefighter/paramedic and Echo’s handler.
“When we’re getting up around 5, 5:30 (a.m.) to come to work, right away you can hear her tail wagging because she knows it’s a work day,” said Windell.
Echo and Windell are always together, he said. In the mornings, Windell rides his truck into the station with Echo, who previously worked with a veteran living with PTSD.
“It’s pretty much Echo’s truck and I just drive it. Anything she would need is with me all the time,” he said. “Every time I open the truck, and she realizes she’s at the fire station, you know, she’s all excited.”
Windell said Echo has provided continuity within the station during shift changes, when one crew is preparing to leave the station while another one arrives.
“In the morning, everybody’s waiting at the kitchen table for Echo to get here … and when she gets here, it’s a big party,” he said, noting that busy schedules had made it difficult to connect with members of different crews. “So, now we’re going to spend a little bit more time with each other because of Echo.”
She changes people
Windell said he feels lucky to work with Echo and see the way she changes people.
“It’s amazing what people will open up about or what people will begin to talk about as they pet a dog, you know, and just kind of bringing that light and that happiness to people,” said Windell.
In the field, Echo has the same effect on firefighters and paramedics. On call 24/7, Echo has to always be ready to respond to a critical incident to provide behavioral health and peer support.
“Our peer-support team, which is made up of firefighters who go out after these calls and kind of talk with firefighters and allow them to open up and talk about what they’ve seen,” he said. “When our firefighters go out, they can evaluate if they think it’d be a good time for Echo to come out.”
Echo’s first assignment as a comfort dog was the Bobcat Fire last year. The “day in and day out” of fighting a fire like that one was “very ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said, referring to the famous Bill Murray comedy in which the same day repeats over and over again.
“We were, you know, interacting with those crews in the mornings, and allowing them to kind of just have a little bit of (a) feeling of home and a feeling of happiness and kind of just interrupt that ‘Groundhog Day’ of the same routine over and over again,” he said.
After the Fire Station 81 Shooting
This fire season, Windell said, the feeling of comfort Echo brings will be important. It was crucial after the recent Fire Station 81 shooting, as well.
“Almost a distraction,” Windell said of Echo’s role on June 1. “(She was) taking them away from everything that we were dealing with that day.”
“That feeling of just being able to have that innocent dog that, you know, has no idea what’s going on and is happy to see you and happy that you’re deciding to pet her,” Windell said. “I think that really helped crews.”
Echo was with crews from across the Santa Clarita Valley during the week firefighters honored fellow firefighter Tory Carlon, who lost his life in the shooting.
The idea, Windell said, was “allowing people to just kind of smile and see that brightness that (Echo) brings and allow people to kind of start the healing process.”
Windell said he thinks Echo has helped with the healing process.
“She’s helping people just kind of have happiness and see that wagging tail that, you know, that tail never stops wagging,” he said. “And just allowing people to kind of have a little bit of comfort and feeling of home.”
Echo is a popular figure for crews in local firehouses. She’s also developed quite the following on Instagram. More than 3,000 accounts follow @echothefiredog to see Echo at work and play.
A recent 20-second video – originally shot on TikTok where this local social media celebrity has nearly 100 followers – opens with the question, “Why does the Fire Department need a comfort dog?” and features photos of Echo spreading happiness to Fire Department personnel.
How it started
The “why” of the department’s comfort dog program was a point that Windell had to get better at explaining to department executives over the past decade.
“There were a lot of questions,” he remembered. “This was a new program, a new idea.”
It was an idea that started with Windell fostering dogs in bad conditions that he found on the job, he said. The impact those dogs had on crews while they were at the station was what led to the idea of bringing therapy dogs to the department.
“You’d have 20 guys in the living area playing with a dog, and everybody’s there and everybody’s laughing and having a good time,” Windell said of the days when his foster dogs joined him. “We really started to talk and realize that we need dogs back in the fire stations.”
Approximately three years ago, with support from the department’s chiefs, Windell said a plan was put in place and interest grew from organizations wanting to help the new program find a dog.
“I feel so lucky I was able to find … the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation,” Windell said. “We were the first fire department dog (they) did.”
How it’s going
Now, fire departments from across the country have taken a great interest in the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s program, Windell said.
“Everybody’s reaching out now and trying to figure out how we’ve done this,” he said, noting that the Los Angeles Fire Department also has a comfort dog. “We’re mentoring other fire departments in their dog programs.”
Windell said departments from nearby, including Santa Monica and Glendale, to those further away, including Phoenix and Boston, have reached out to learn more about Echo.
“With these other departments, we bring Echo out and we answer questions for them, but I also show them how it works. How just bringing her in the room just kind of changes the vibe and changes the seriousness of the situation,” Windell said. “It’s not about the patch that we wear, it’s that we’re all firefighters and we’re assisting because we’ve seen the benefits of this.”
The Los Angeles County Fire Department also has a second comfort dog, Milo, who work with the department’s peer support coordinator to bring comfort to fire personnel.
Between the cumulative stress and trauma of the job, Echo has made a big difference.
“It doesn’t matter what happened out there in the street, when we come back in that kitchen door and Echo is just standing there with her tail wagging, and she’s just excited that we came back, it kind of centers us and brings us back to reality,” Windell said, “where we’re back home, we’re back with Echo.”