A Fireman's Disney World

July 22, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

The alarm sounds. The siren wails. And every time, the adrenalin courses through Jon Ulmschneider, career firefighter, volunteer firefighter, 25-year-old man blessed with the boyhood fantasy that never ended.

Just like his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather. Firefighting, understand, runs in the family.

Yesterday, Mr. Ulmschneider could hardly contain his enthusiasm. He gazed at row upon row of fire engines under one roof -- nearly 70 of them -- new ones, antiques, gigantic ones and pint-sized pumpers, high-tech, $600,000 jobs and economy models.

"All in one spot -- this much -- it's like Disney World for a fireman," the Rhode Island firefighter exclaimed.

He came to the right place.

At the Baltimore Convention Center, site of the 12th annual Firehouse Expo, about 8,000 firefighters, emergency medical technicians, equipment dealers and fire buffs who gathered for the four-day extravaganza understood the obsession.

Here, firemen priced engines, climbed into the cabs, checked out the hydraulic lifts, snapped pictures, lots of pictures.

They bought bags of firefighter T-shirts and bumper stickers and jewelry shaped like hydrants. They walked out with books and videos bearing titles like "Los Angeles Burns -- Fires of the 1992 Riot."

They shared trade secrets in sessions on the lessons of a Memphis high-rise fire that killed two firefighters, the devastating earthquake in Japan, the Oklahoma City bombing.

It was a time to talk shop and ponder case studies of the less-famous but every bit as deadly threats: carbon monoxide, controlling the spread of flames, searching for signs of life in burning homes or ruins.

Yesterday, the firefighters searched instead for buddies, the ones they knew from previous annual expos here, the ones they've yet to meet -- others in a huge and fiercely loyal brotherhood.

Peter Chisholm knows all about this. He came from Ashland, Mass., and proudly sported a blue T-shirt that said "Ashland Fire" -- enough to strike up a conversation with fellow firefighters wherever he goes, even in other countries.

"You wear this shirt like this, and anywhere, somebody will come over to you and say, 'Hey, you on the job?' " said Mr. Chisholm, a 36-year-old volunteer firefighter who works for a public relations firm.

Mark Mecca has come back for the convention 10 years running to trade war stories, pick up tips and regale in the best collection of miniature fire engines around. Not just any miniatures, but die-cast Macks.

The expo, sponsored by Firehouse Magazine with the Baltimore and Baltimore County fire departments, continues today with exhibits open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a firefighting buff's version of flea market heaven running from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Then, at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, 120 firetrucks and other emergency vehicles dating from restored antiques to modern super-trucks will parade through downtown. The parade begins at Key Highway and proceeds on Light, Conway and Charles streets, ending at the Convention Center.

Look for John Memmel's handiwork. Working for Delmarva Fire Apparatus Inc of Trappe, Md., he restores gems like the green 1926 engine, resplendent with chrome bell, polished brass, a two-section wooden ladder and a brass fire extinguisher.

It's all about boyhood fantasies, he says, and discovering them over and over: "People see these things year after year, but they just want to see them again."

He's got a point.

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