When Baltimore County Battalion Chief Richard L. Yeagle answers an alarm, "I stand around pushing buttons and telling people what to do."
But in his off-duty guise as Firefighter Richard L. Yeagle of the Lutherville Volunteers, "I can mask up and go in there and squirt the hose and have fun."
Chief Yeagle, 50, was among thousands who crowded the exhibition hall at the Convention Center yesterday for Firehouse Expo '94, a three-day annual national convention sponsored by Firehouse Magazine with the Baltimore and Baltimore County fire departments.
The chief is typical of professional firefighters who do the same job for free when off duty.
"It's the excitement of it," he explained.
Claude Brown, 51, is a 20-year Boston firefighter whose Heavy Rescue Unit answers 2,000 calls a year. In his spare time, Mr. Brown has a second home in tiny Center Barnstead, N.H., and volunteers in its fire company, which responds to perhaps 275 fire and rescue calls a year.
"I've loved the fire department since I was a kid. It's got to be in your blood," Mr. Brown said.
Firehouse Expo has been held in Baltimore nine of the past 11 years and annually attracts up to 10,000 men and women, most of them volunteer firefighters and their families, from all over the United States. They come to learn about the latest in firefighting and rescue techniques through seminars by leaders in the field, to check out new equipment -- from $500,000 aerial ladder trucks to heavy-duty rubber boots -- and to get together with others bitten by the firefighting bug.
The "work" of the convention ended at 5 p.m. yesterday as the fire engines rolled out and display booths were dismantled to make way for the "fun" part today.
A parade of 175 new and antique fire engines will begin at 9 a.m. at Key Highway and head down Light Street to the Convention Center, which will be turned into a 500-table flea market of fire-related items.
Larry Sickels, 38, of Gambrills, a member of Bowie Company No. 3 since he was 16, said he took advantage of his first visit to a Firehouse Expo by signing up for courses on new equipment and rescue techniques with The Alliance For Fire and Emergency Management, a network of six specialist organizations based in Ashland, Mass.
By day, Mr. Sickels is a manager at Helping Hand, an Annapolis homeless shelter. But he carries his fire turn-out gear in his car, ready to respond to an alarm.
"I like working with the public, and it's a public service. I've done a lot of different jobs, but I've always stayed with the volunteers," Mr. Sickels said.
The fraternal aspect of firefighting emerged when Stephen Jones, a welder who has served with the Center Barnstead volunteers for 28 years, said he and other members of the company, including Mr. Brown, drove all night from New Hampshire to have breakfast with members of Baltimore's Truck Company 13 at their South Carey firehouse and to renew acquaintances made at previous conventions. They planned to be back in New Hampshire this morning.
The conventions give people the chance to learn from experts and question them in person, said Bruce T. Bowling, publisher of Firehouse Magazine for 17 years.
In addition, he said, the firefighters and fire officers get to see the latest equipment and take recommendations on possible purchases back to their hometowns.
=1 "It's a $3 billion market," Mr. Bowling said.