Aaron Salkill didn’t start his TikTok account thinking about gaining more than half a million followers. It just kind of happened for the 33-year-old Kennesaw firefighter and his 2-and-a-half-year-old Dalmatian, Cinder.
With in-person school trips to the Cobb County Safety Village stopped in early 2020 due to COVID-19, it was more about finding a new outlet to teach fire safety and also a way to have some fun while the world was going stir crazy at home.
“All of my content, whether fire safety related or just silly, is very much tailored toward kids,” Salkill said. “While we certainly have lots of adult fans, our target audience has always been kids. During COVID, while all the kids were doing virtual learning, this was an avenue for Cinder and I to keep teaching fire safety and to do it in such a way that they would actually pay attention.”
The account took off six months after it was created, last fall, Salkill said. Now they have more than 600,000 TikTok followers and nearly 19,000 more on Instagram as they tell the tale of fire safety and have a blast along the way.
While the social media following is large, that isn’t Cinder’s main job, Salkill confirmed. It’s teaching fire and dog safety at the safety village.
Cinder knows everything from “stop, drop and roll” to crawling under fire to tactics for finding a second exit out of a building to demonstrating how to test a door handle in a fire. Salkill trained her on all of those skills.
Cinder has taught these lessons to the second graders who visit the safety village on dog safety, from how to approach dogs by talking to the dog’s owner first to making sure kids don’t run away from strays and alarm them to attack.
Safety village director Allison Carter said that it started with a need after animal control came to her looking for a plan as they were averaging 550 dog bite attacks per year with the bulk coming in those below 18.
Since the grade-school training began, Carter said the number of dog bites in the county have dropped by 30 percent.
“We have helped eliminate some of those children being bit by dogs,” Carter said. “(The students) can hear it, see it and then physically do it… (Cinder) is just a part of that … When you do (in-person training) with (students), they understand and they get it. She just makes the program even more impactful.”
Carter said that Cinder is even a great actor during the presentations, tucking her ears back to pretend to be a scared dog.
Cinder has also worked at several in-person camps, like Camp Oo-u-la for burn victims, Camp Puzzle for children with autism and was part of a Make-a-Wish event when 4-year-old Travis Diedrich, Jr. got his wish to spend a day as a firefighter in Marietta over the summer.
The bond between Dalmatians and firefighters goes back hundreds of years, Salkill said, to when the Dalmatians helped clear the paths for horse-drawn fire carriages dating back to the 1870s.
Cinder and Salkill, a Lassiter High graduate who grew up in Woodstock until middle school, are just modernizing that bond and spreading the word throughout the country. That social media following has led firefighters from North Carolina to Chicago to reach out about training Dalmatians to teach kids fire safety. Now Salkill has a network of firefighters in the same boat that he’s in. They just don’t have quite the same social media following yet.
Carter said that the way Salkill brings his own dogs into the program and is able to educate Cobb County and beyond is a gift, as he can make things like candle safety engaging and entertaining.
“He is a fantastic fire educator,” Carter said. “He really wants to educate people… He views (the large social media following) to his advantage. He’s done a great job of putting fire prevention education in front of people in all that he does and that says a lot.”
Cinder is Salkill’s second Dalmatian to work at the safety village. It started with his first Dalmatian, Ember, closer to when he started working with the Cobb County Fire Department nine years ago. After Ember died, he adopted Cinder when she was 8 weeks old more than two years ago.
In August, the social media accounts took a brief hiatus from dalmatian fire safety, but for good reason. Salkill’s wife, Lindsey, gave birth to their daughter, Piper, on Aug. 18. Piper came early and the couple spent time at the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Egleston after Piper underwent surgery for complications after birth.
They kept up with TikTok, only with Lindsey and Aaron providing videos and Instagram updates together to entertain. It was a place Aaron had spent time before in 2016-17, when Ember was a guest therapy dog for the children at Egleston, but this experience was a little different with Cinder at home being watched by Aaron’s parents.
“It’s nice to be familiar with the place I’m going to but it’s kind of been a surreal adventure,” Salkill said. “It’s very different coming as the parent of a patient instead of coming with a dog to hang out and have fun with the kids.”