Fire, crash or cave-in, helping-hand Alarmers 'never say no'

January 09, 1995|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

They aren't firefighters, but the Anne Arundel Alarmers are ready, 24 hours a day, to jump in their truck and head for a fire scene or any other kind of disaster.

When a fire goes to two alarms or more, when police are combing the woods on a manhunt or keeping antagonists apart at rallies, when rescue workers are digging for people trapped in a cave-in or when a plane crashes, the Alarmers are on hand to provide food and drink to emergency personnel.

They have been at some scenes for 14 days and at others for just a few hours.

"They never say no," said Acting Police Chief Robert Beck, adding that the officers appreciate their service.

"There's nothing that makes us feel better than to be working on a fire and to be hungry, tired and exhausted and have them show up," said Stephen Halford, the county's acting fire administrator. "They are really a unique group of people, because they don't get the glory in terms of fighting the fires. They come to service our needs."

The 35 volunteers go to calls with their 40-foot, custom-made bus that can carry food to feed 300 people and medical supplies and emergency equipment to help two heart attack patients at once.

"I call it the flying McDonald's. It's strictly for fast food," said Bill Hobson, 58, of Riviera Beach, a former volunteer Orchard Beach firefighter and an Alarmer since he retired 2 1/2 years ago from his job as a supervisor of engineers at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

The vehicle cost $250,000 and is the fourth one the Alarmers have bought, each one larger and better-equipped than the previous one. The bus has grills, a gas stove, a microwave, a four-flavor soda fountain, coffee-makers, a refrigerator and a hot dog cooker.

On an average run, the Alarmers may dispense 10 dozen hot dogs and doughnuts, 3 gallons of coffee, about 50 cups of hot chocolate and soda. They can make up to 2 gallons of soup or stew.

The vehicle also is equipped with a fire department radio and awnings that can be rolled out to provide cover from the weather. Emergency personnel often come aboard the bus, which has heating and air conditioning, to cool off in the summer and warm up in the winter, said the Alarmers.

The Alarmers' first vehicle was an old bread truck turned into a coffee wagon.

That was in 1958, after a bitter cold February night when Al Brandt and two friends watched weary firefighters battling a blaze that destroyed an A&P food store on Crain Highway near Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard in Glen Burnie.

Water almost froze as it shot out of the hoses that night, recalled Mr. Brandt, who owned a gas station on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard in Ferndale. Firefighters trudged to nearby stores to get coffee to warm themselves.

Mr. Brandt, now 67, and his friends vowed the firefighters would never suffer another night like that. Along with his friends and his brother Wilbur, 68, he recruited enough people to buy the bread truck. They made their first run in April 1958 to a two-alarm house fire in Riviera Beach.

Now the Alarmers respond to 75 to 135 calls a year, totaling about 4,000 hours. Last year, they responded to 76 calls.

At first, the group operated out of the Ferndale Fire Station on Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard. But in 1969 they bought an old grocery store in the 100 block of Glenmont Road and converted it into their headquarters. The three-story building houses the bus, several smaller supply and back-up vehicles, a meeting room, a recreational area and a kitchen.

Most of the group's 35 members come from around the Baltimore Beltway, but others come from as far away as the Eastern Shore. Some are brothers and sisters, husband and wives, or longtime friends. Members range in age from 30 to 90.

The group hopes to attract younger members. "We've got plenty of old geezers who are too old to do anything," said Roland Kroeger, 65, of Grasonville, an Alarmer for 27 years.

Because most of the Alarmers are retired, they don't have to worry about getting up for work the morning after a long night at a fire scene.

"With fires, everybody's got something to do," said Dave Altvater, 56, a former Baltimore police officer and president of the Alarmers who lives near their Ferndale headquarters. "This is our part of the job."

Members pay dues and buy badges and license plates to identify themselves at fire scenes.

They rely mostly on bull and oyster roasts, pancake breakfasts and Christmas tree sales to raise the money they need to keep going. Help also comes from grateful firefighters and police officers. Chief Beck said officers are encouraged to buy $2 associate membership cards from the Alarmers.

The county Fire Department contributes $8,000 to $14,000 a year and helps with repairs to the bus, said Mr. Halford, who estimated it would cost the county several hundred thousand dollars to replace the service the Alarmers provide.

"It would be a sorely missed service and a niche that would need to be filled," he said.

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