Relics enliven Firehouse Muster Firefighting relics, instruction draw 6,000 to exposition. SPRAYER MEETING


Tin fire extinguishers from the early 1900s. Belt buckles from old firemen's uniforms. Antique fire hats.

These relics, on display at a flea market yesterday at Festival Hall, serve as a quiet reminder of the past, before fire trucks sold for $400,000 and before firefighters had to learn how to identify toxic chemicals and avoid AIDS infection.

Other relics of firefighting days gone by also were displayed at the flea market of firefighter memorabilia, one of the events of the eighth annual Great American Firehouse Exposition and Muster.

Shirley Sills, director of the exposition, said Firehouse Magazine organizes the annual event to bring firefighters together so they can learn from each other, learn about new fire safety equipment and enjoy themselves.

The four-day exposition, held here for the sixth time in eight years, opened Thursday. The event was attended by more than 6,000 volunteer firefighters, paramedics, fire buffs and their families from 20 states, including Maryland.

The relics and the old-fashioned firefighting contests, such as bucket brigade and midnight alarm, provided lighter entertainment for modern firefighters who also attended informational seminars on subjects such as hazardous material identification and burn safety, Sills said.

"I've always liked antiques, and I've been a volunteer firefighter for 34 years, so becoming a collector of these items was a natural choice for me," said Ralph Jennings, a Pennsylvanian, pointing at the antiques in his display.

Jennings, whose own collection grew so large that he had to move it out of his home and into a two-story building, said his oldest item is a unique 1829 speaking trumpet made of silver.

"Around that time, the volunteer fire companies were very inventive. They made things themselves," Jennings said. "So with the early pieces, you see one, you're not going to see another one like it."

Modern firefighters often admire the gold and silver badges once used to reward firemen's good service and the solid gold buttons once worn on firemen's coats, said Jennings, who collects the items at antique shows and yard sales.

But, judging from the stares that a young woman across the room received from passers-by, modern firefighters are interested in more than antiques.

Lisa McConnell, a firefighter from Pleasant Hills, Pa., said the calendar that features her and several other women wearing lingerie and posing in fire-rescue scenes sold like hotcakes at the expo.

"Take the Heat 1992" is the fourth calendar published by the Pleasant Hills Volunteer Fire Company, whose members used the profits to purchase a new $400,000 rescue pumper truck last year.

Some Pleasant Hills residents continue to protest the exploitation of "scantily clad women," said firefighter Eric Bodrock.

The controversy only helped sales, said McConnell, who signed autographs yesterday.

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