It's a desire that seems hard-wired into so many young brains: to be a firefighter, to have a life enlivened by danger, bravery and rescue.
Usually it dies out, but not always. Some go on to transform the fantasy into adult reality. If you want to know how they turn out, stop by the 14th annual Firehouse and Emergency Services Expo, currently at the Baltimore Convention Center.
This combination trade show and old home week has been held in Baltimore for 12 of the last 14 years. It is sponsored by Firehouse magazine, "known," editor Harvey Eisner says, "as the Time magazine of the fire service."
About 12,000 paying visitors are expected before Expo closes this evening, mostly professional and volunteer firefighters, a small sample of the nation's force of 2 million. Most come to inspect, and maybe even buy, the new gear on display.
Expo is a three-day supermarket for the fire-conscious. All the tools to respond to disasters are here: hoses and shovels, crowbars and axes, escape ropes, oxygen tanks and helmets. There are confectionary items that celebrate the calling, photographs, beer mugs, fire bells and history books, brass items for firehouse swank, pins and belt buckles and toys and models, even fire-station birdhouses and stuffed Smokey Bear dolls.
And, of course, there are displays of new heavy equipment, demonstrations of safety procedures, and training routines.
But it's clear from the scene on the vast floor of the new Convention Center annex what really draws firefighters to this business: the machines.
Nobody has the machines firefighters have. Calling these spit-polished and Brasso-ed behemoths mere trucks is to misuse the term. There are 50 on display, from towns in 40 states. They are juggernauts with more horses under the hood than the King Ranch, vehicles designed with no respect for the laws of aerodynamics: They plow ahead on sheer force, just pushing the wind aside.
Think of a tanker that can lug 3,000 gallons of water to a remote rural fire and spew it all over a barn fire. Think of a truck that can shoot a ladder a hundred feet in the air to extract people from a burning building, or insert a squad of firefighters into one.
Baltimore's Fire Department has just bought a new hook-and-ladder that will soon be making its presence felt in this city of tinderbox row houses. It carries six firefighters, plus a tiller driver (the guy who steers in the rear), runs 54 feet in length and weighs about 42,000 pounds. It cost $432,000.
That's the city's newest piece of equipment. The oldest, which ++ will take part in a parade on Sunday of antique fire vehicles, is a horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine built in 1888.
It fought the great Baltimore fire of 1904, which it lost.
Along with all things mechanical at the Firehouse Expo, there is arcana. Like how the Dalmatian became the official fire dog.
Like many great relationships, it began by accident. The spotted dog was not invited into the firehouse; he just showed up, according to Gary Frederick, an assistant chief of the Baltimore Fire Department. "They used to chase coaches, so when fire trucks came along, they just followed on."
Eisner, besides being the editor of Firehouse, is chief of the Tenafly, N.J., fire department. He relates how firefighting has changed under the influence of federal employee safety regulations.
"We're paying more attention now to firefighters' health and safety," Eisner said. "It used to be that firemen just rushed in and that was the end of it."
Not anymore. Firefighters no longer even hang off the back of the hook and ladders as they career through the streets. They remain belted up and safe in seats behind the engine driver.
Such civilizing changes could, of course, dampen childlike imaginings of reckless adventure. But even at the Expo, there are those who have always been immune to the lure of firefighting.
Like Reist Mummau, a craggy-faced man of 53 under a white straw hat found straining to position a 1930 Boyer fire wagon from DeKalb, Ill., on a square of red carpet.
"Dad gum it!" he exclaims (he really said that). "I just flooded it."
Part of Mummau's problem, he admits, is that he knows almost nothing about the machine. He merely delivered it here for a friend.
"I'm a cowboy," he says by way of explanation. "I grew up on a saddle horse, not a fire truck."
Still, though he followed a different childhood fantasy, he does seem to appreciate the old fire trucks, and the people who care for them.
"They're pretty to look at," he says. "But I don't know how to use 'em."
"But they," he says of the firefighters all around him, "don't know how to use a rope, either."
The Firehouse and Emergency Services Expo runs today from noon to 5 p.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center. Admission is $10. The parade of antique fire vehicles begins at 9 a.m. Sunday, following a route from Key Highway and Covington Street to the Convention Center.
Pub Date: 7/26/97