Every summer, Carroll Countians crown their fire prevention queens. But this year, there's just one problem: a severe shortage of would-be queens.
At the Sykesville Fire Department's contest this month, a total of two contestants vied for the title of Miss Fire Prevention. Nobody has entered Mount Airy's competition, set for today. And a similar lack of entrants has prompted the Gamber fire company to run newspaper ads -- "Girls Wanted for Miss Gamber" -- to drum up interest in its contest, scheduled for Aug. 6.
Potential queens became hard to come by about five years ago. But in 1990 all 14 of Carroll's volunteer fire companies still held fire prevention queen contests, usually attracting six to eight entrants. Now only half of the companies have the contests, and they're lucky to find three young women for each event.
Those involved with the contests say the gradual disappearance of contestants is the result of two powerful forces -- feminism and suburban development.
In the eyes of many young women who are eligible for the title -- generally those between the ages of 16 and 21 -- the Miss Fire Prevention contest is a hopelessly outdated and sexist exercise.
And members of local fire departments say the residents of new housing developments that regularly materialize on the outskirts Carroll's eight municipalities haven't connected with the towns' traditional institutions.
"The contest is more of a small-town tradition or custom, and now that the town's getting bigger, we just don't have the participation anymore," said Jennifer Ridgely, 20, who was Miss Sykesville Fire Prevention in 1992 and 1994. She agreed to a second term because nobody entered the contest last year.
"A lot more girls play sports now, and they're involved with different activities and clubs at school," Ms. Ridgely said.
Tom Collins, 68, has organized a state fire prevention queen contest in Ocean City for 16 years. He's watched other growing counties that experienced suburban growth earlier than Carroll, such as Montgomery and Prince George's, drop their contests, too.
"Carroll County has grown so fast . . . that these things drop by the wayside," he said.
This lack of interest was apparent at the Sykesville volunteer fire company's Miss Fire Prevention contest this month, in which two young women competed for the title.
Before the competition, the two contestants chatted in the cavernous Sykesville Fire Hall, which was empty save for their families.
Niki White, 19, wore an ankle-length white lace dress and satin pumps. Teetering uncomfortably in her heels, 16-year-old Jamie Newton wore a short dark green, off-the shoulder velvet dress.
Both contestants said they felt awkward with only each other for competition. "But at least we have more than one person, so we can still have a pageant," Ms. White said.
Ms. Ridgely, the reigning queen and mistress of ceremonies for the contest, gave the contestants tips on how to handle themselves in front of the judges.
"If you cross your leg, make sure it doesn't bounce." "Always, always, always, always, make sure you talk into the microphone, and don't stand behind the podium."
The three judges asked each of the young women questions about fire prevention, first in private, then before the small but rapt audience.
"What does fire prevention mean to you?" "Where should smoke detectors be placed in the house and how often should they be tested?"
At the contest's end, Ms. White was crowned the 1995-96 Miss Sykesville Fire Prevention Queen.
"It's been a tight race, and I hope I can fill Jennifer's shoes," the winner said.
Supporters of fire prevention queen contests are quick to point out that the events are not beauty pageants. The queens are expected to visit elementary schools, senior centers and parades as fire prevention educators, in addition to making appearances at firehouse open houses and fund-raising carnivals.
"The contestants are quizzed on fire prevention, and you have to have a brain to win it," said James E. Bangerd III, president of the Westminster Fire Company, which dropped its contest three years ago because no one entered.
These days, fire prevention queens are more likely to be volunteer firefighters themselves rather than the daughters or sisters of firefighters.
Ms. White, a member of the Sykesville Fire Company for four years, is a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. She's also a student at Carroll Community College and plans to go to medical school.
"It's a lot of work," she said of her new role as fire prevention queen. "But you're perceived as just being a fire queen, when it's really about teaching adults and children about fire prevention."
Outside the tightknit world of fire departments, the fire prevention queen concept is difficult for many people to grasp.
Ms. Ridgely, a physical therapy student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, encountered some predictable responses when word got around school that she was a fire queen for the Sykesville Fire Company.
"They'd look at me and say, 'Is that like a farm queen?' " she said. "People got a little chuckle out of it."
Those who have been around volunteer fire departments for a while say the lack of interest in the fire prevention queen contests reflects an overall decline in voluntarism. They say newcomers to Carroll with hectic schedules and long commutes have less free time to devote to the community than longtime residents, for whom the local fire department traditionally has been a center of community activity.
"Folks moving into this area from Baltimore and D.C. don't know what a volunteer fire department means," said Libby Luebberman, a paramedic with the Westminster Fire Company who was Miss Sykesville Fire Prevention Queen of 1966. "You don't have the old community spirit."