Kingman the Fire Dog is lovable, but he’s so much more than just a cute face.
The Huntington Beach Fire Department has been using Kingman, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever-husky mix, as a peer support dog since February.
He is the life of the party in potentially difficult situations. Sometimes, just anything that can provide a smile can make all the difference to a first responder.
“He’s there to comfort us in times of stress and trauma and overstimulation,” said Kingman’s handler, HBFD engineer Kane Johnson. “He’s there to kind of be that icebreaker, to make it OK to not be OK. Everyone’s all serious, and he’ll do a dog thing and everyone is laughing and cracking up. It eases that tension and trauma. It doesn’t avoid it, because you’re still going to feel it, but it just makes it so it’s OK and you can process.”
Huntington Beach is the first fire department in Orange County to use a peer support dog, Johnson said, though more are likely to follow. He got the idea after working peer support in Los Angeles County, following last year’s situation in Agua Dulce where a firefighter allegedly killed a colleague before committing suicide.
Johnson started talking with firefighter Jake Windell, the handler of LA County Fire support dog Echo.
“I said, this is something we need as a team,” Johnson said. “We need to have a dog as part of our team.”
HBFD Professional Standards Division Chief Tim Andre and Fire Chief Scott Haberle were both on board.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance has verified 1,750 firefighter suicides since 1880. The vast majority of those — 95% — occurred between 2000 and 2022.
“The fire department actually loses more people to suicide than we do to fire-related injuries, which is crazy,” Andre said. “Mental health has become a real challenge for our industry, so we’re finding any way we can to go after this thing before it becomes a problem. There’s all kinds of statistics and studies that show that just being around a dog, physiologically, it does wonders. It lowers your blood pressure, it increases your oxytocin, your breathing rate slows.”
Kingman, who was donated by the nonprofit Patriotic Service Dog Foundation in Murrieta, also gives the HBFD peer support team a great way to break the ice. The 70-pound dog was given his name by him because he’s a rescue dog from Kingman, Ariz.
Of course, the fire department is having fun with its new canine companion. Kingman has an Instagram page managed by HBFD administrative analyst Rachel Ogden, and some of the Instagram Reels that have been posted have gone viral.
But Kingman also came into his responsibility very quickly. Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella died in a helicopter crash off the coast of Newport Beach on the night of Feb. 19 — the same day that Kingman received his training certification as a peer support dog.
Johnson and Kingman, as well as other members of the peer support team, went to briefings later that night.
“Kingman stood right in the way of everybody coming into the room, so they had to pet him or at least acknowledge him,” Andre said. “Just that in itself, it opened up all kinds of conversations that I think really relieved, or at least helped neutralize, some of the angst that was going on that evening. It was pretty interesting to watch. It was eye-opening, the power of a service dog.”
Kingman was also present at Vella’s memorial a couple of weeks later.
Haberle, too, has seen moods change whenever Kingman comes into the room.
“It is common for first responders to experience difficult situations as part of their normal duties, but what is not so common is for them to ask for help,” he said. “Kane and Kingman have provided an avenue to start the difficult conversations regarding mental health in the fire service.”
Kingman spends time throughout the day with Johnson at Fire Station 7 on Warner Avenue. There is a kennel there for when the firefighters go on calls, but sometimes Kingman will ride along — although he gets antsy in the back seat being away from Johnson, the driver.
Kingman also goes home with Johnson. He said his wife of him, Carrie, who works as a marriage and family therapist, also has enjoyed having the lovable dog around.
Though Kingman largely works to benefit the HBFD, he will sometimes make forays into the community. On Tuesday morning, Johnson and Kingman were at the Huntington Beach Central Library for a debriefing following an incident that happened there recently. A regular patron of the library had gone into cardiac arrest there and ended up dying, Johnson said, so Tuesday’s meeting was a recap of the event.
As people walked into the room they couldn’t help but smile when they were greeted by a new furry friend.
“He’s not the dog that’s going to come up and stay with you the whole time, but he’s going to put himself near you and just be curious,” Johnson said. “He’ll see everybody, which I really like… but he also gets distracted. He’s a curious dog, so he loves to look around and check things out.
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