While getting ready for bed at a Richmond hotel nearly 10 years ago, Cheryl Heppner didn't notice anything suggesting she was in danger. But Dana, her companion, was not acting herself. Responding to an alarm that Heppner could not hear, she kept tapping Heppner, then darting for the door.

"I had no clue there was a fire," said Heppner.

The anxious dog persisted until Heppner, deaf since age 7, opened the door and followed Dana down the hall.

"A sudden movement caught my eye and I looked further down the hallway to see people rushing down the hall. I became aware that the vibrations I was feeling were the pounding of feet. And looking over a balcony to the hotel atrium, I could see people moving fast to exit the building," said Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC).

Hearing dogs like Dana, trained at the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence and Fidos for Freedom, will demonstrate how they help with situations and tasks that involve sound -- like an alarm sounding, a phone ringing or even their owner's keys falling to the ground -- this Saturday, May 22, at "Celebrate Communication 2004." The event -- for the hearing-impaired, their families and friends -- is co-sponsored by Heppner's group and the Helen A. Keller Institute for Human Disabilities. Deaf and hearing-impaired persons number more than 180,000 in the Northern Virginia area, according to the NVRC.

The program includes seminars about assistive technologies and the effects of hearing loss on dating. Free exhibits will range from captioned cartoons and signing classes for kids to information from the Federal Communications Commission and the Kennedy Center on services such as the center's sign-language-interpreted performances.

The activities will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. The Lions Club of Virginia will also offer free vision and hearing screenings outside the arts center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. To learn more, call 703-352-9055 (TTY: 703-352-9056), e-mail info@nvrc.org or see www.nvrc.org.

-- Samantha Ganey

Belle, a dog trained to help the hearing-impaired with tasks involving sound, rests during the 2002 Celebrate Communication event .