Old fire engines wail and dazzle

The Baltimore Sun

With no clowns or marching bands to get in the way, Travis Francis stood on the side of the road in Towson yesterday and got a close-up view of what he had come to see: dozens of gigantic, bright red firetrucks, sirens wailing, gauges and dials gleaming.

For a 4-year-old boy, this was the perfect parade.

"I want to drive," Francis said, as the first of more than a hundred fire and rescue vehicles -- some antiques, some modern -- rolled by his family on Bosley Avenue. Picking his favorite was easy.

"My daddy's," he said.

Hundreds of firefighters, retired firefighters -- and, in some cases, aspiring firefighters -- were among the spectators lining the streets of Towson yesterday to celebrate the 100-year history of the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association, still one of the region's most active units.

There were hand pumps made of wood and large metal wheels that would have been pulled to a fire in the 1800s. One of them, from 1897, was pulled by a pickup truck yesterday. Two horses dragged an 1899 "steamer," a more advanced pump that used steam pressure to push 500 gallons of water per minute through its hoses. Showing off, the horses made a tight, 360-degree turn in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I'm not sure the ladder truck could do that," an announcer said from the grandstand.

But the huge modern engines, with Dalmatians sitting at attention in the front seats, caught the attention of the 12-and-under set. They cheered and jumped and sometimes covered their ears to block the noise as the 100-foot-long hook-and-ladder trucks approached. Horns blared and lights flashed red and white.

Emblazoned on the side of one truck: "We still make house calls."

For Trey Torres, 8, who said he wants to be a firefighter someday, the bigger the truck, the better. "The hook-and-ladder down there, the one with the driver's seat in the back," he said, pointing down the road when asked which one was his favorite. "I like firetrucks and firefighters."

Baltimore County's volunteer fire department -- whose 35 fire, rescue and emergency medical service companies are staffed by 3,700 volunteers -- works closely with the county's smaller career force -- which also celebrated an anniversary yesterday, its 125th. Emergency 911 calls are routed through a central dispatcher who sends firefighters from the closest station, regardless of whether it's manned by volunteer or career personnel.

"We work as one single fire service under the direction of the fire chief. We all get the same training and so on," said Jim Doran, an administrator with the association. "It's a great system, and it's an immense savings to the county."

Organized fire protection started in the region in the 1700s in Baltimore City, but when the city separated from the county in 1851, it became clear that local volunteer fire companies were needed to cover large population centers, such as "Towsontown."

"Friends and neighbors got together and realized how important it was to have a local fire company to protect their community," said James T. Smith Jr., the Baltimore County executive. "After that a lot of other neighborhoods and communities followed suit, and more and more volunteer fire companies were formed."

In 1907, volunteer companies founded the association, which helps govern individual stations.

Doran remembers when he joined the volunteer department in Lutherville in 1965. Then, training consisted of a "basic firefighter class," and recruits generally learned on the job. Today, they are trained as first responders, taught how to identify and contain hazardous materials and how to secure an accident on a highway so police and paramedics can respond.

All that, of course, on top of learning how to fight fires.

"Seven out of 10 times, when an engine goes down the street, it's not going to a fire, but some kind of medical emergency," Doran said.

But the fire engines and ambulances on display yesterday were in no rush as they meandered through Towson. Children waved to the firefighters in uniform and also to a SpongeBob SquarePants figure -- who was wearing firefighter pants with reflective yellow tape on each cuff.

For Mike Kurtz and Janis Delgiorno, both 38, yesterday was a chance to support their colleagues. He is a paramedic, she is a shock trauma nurse. Together they watched the firetrucks go by, learning about the people who were in their line of work generations ago. "I like to see the older equipment," Delgiorno said. "We see the other stuff all the time."


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