It wasn't so long ago, George Petry remembers, when people in his little farm town of New Windsor responded to fires by phoning the grocery store.
"Calls came into a guy named Howdy -- Howard Roop was his right name, but everybody called him Howdy," says Petry, 71, as he sits at a card table in New Windsor's combination town hall-firehouse.
"Anyway, he'd get a call and he'd just go a-running up that street, and I'll never forget he was always still wearing that apron of his, running, running, and he'd blow that siren, and we'd all turn out."
That, in many ways, is how much of Maryland -- and all of Carroll County -- still fights fires: A siren blares, and volunteers scramble to the firehouse, then race to help the neighbor in trouble.
It's a tradition that will be celebrated in Carroll County today, when about 300 members of the local fire companies gather for their annual convention in New Windsor. Decisions have to be made, but mostly the gathering is a celebration of remarkable small-town sufficiency.
Statewide, a network of 30,000 volunteers does what professional fire companies do, but at a fraction of the cost.
Nowhere are the fire companies more in evidence than in Carroll County, where almost 150,000 people rely solely on volunteer companies for fire protection.
The local firehouse is a center of social life in many county towns, and lately the New Windsor firehouse has been busier than during carnival week. The annual convention rotates among the 14 fire companies in the county.
"So we only get it once every 14 years," says Bill Kreimer, 56, president of New Windsor's fire company. "It's quite a big celebration, and it's an honor to host the companies. We kind of go all out for it as far as the decorations and stuff. We've been working on it for a year and a half, and it'll be over in one day."
"Kind of just like a wedding," says Drew Strine, 41, the company's vice president.
In New Windsor, about 10 miles west of Westminster, the first volunteers gathered in 1908 in a building that is now the New Windsor Hardware Store. Thirty-four people were there, but before long -- partly because of a lack of fires -- interest waned, the department disbanded, and the hook and ladder wagon remained idle.
In 1948, Petry and his buddies reorganized the fire company. They raised some money, bought an engine, put up a building and slapped a name on it: New Windsor Fire and Hose Company, No. 1.
"I guess we felt like if we were ever going to go to two companies, we wanted to be No. 1," Petry says. "I guess we thought we were something special."
The company has thrived ever since. It has 104 members, although not all are active. Many fathers and sons are members.
As at other volunteer stations, emergency calls no longer go to the grocer or the barber, but to a 911 emergency center. Sirens still sound to assemble the volunteers, but the wailing has as much to do with tradition as with necessity; in most cases, the volunteers can be reached by pager.
"These people have the highest level of professionalism," says W. Faron Taylor, deputy state fire marshal. "They are well trained, and thousands of them hold professional certification."
It takes 250 hours of training to reach the level of basic firefighter and emergency medical technician, for example, and medical personnel must be recertified every three years.
Tom Coe, 21, a medical technician for New Windsor, says men such as Petry got him involved.
"I can remember them running to the fires when I was little, and it's just something I always wanted to do," Coe says. "You do get somewhat of a good feeling helping your neighbors out."
Pub Date: 5/17/98