A fascination for the world of firefighting 13th annual expo draws buffs and professionals

July 29, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

It was quite a beauty contest yesterday, as well-endowed contestants paraded up Charles Street in the morning sunshine. Hundreds craned their necks to gawk, and the master of ceremonies recited names and measurements:

Engine 57, with an impressive 1,500-gallons-per-minute pumping capacity.

Truck 30, a 1995 Seagrave Aerial Ladder Truck in traditional red and chrome.

And, in the older competitors' category: Westminster 1, a 1924 relic of a truck from Carroll County, stacked with wooden ladders.

It was the Fire Apparatus Parade of the 13th annual Firehouse Expo, a mammoth trade show dedicated to the enduring human fascination with the destructive power of fire and to the men, women and machines that battle to control it.

The four-day event, which ended yesterday, drew 10,000 firefighters and fire buffs from as far as Austria and Japan to the Baltimore Convention Center to attend seminars, check out new technology, shop for antique fire gear and trade harrowing tales.

"A speeding firetruck, with its lights and sirens going, is one of your earliest memories after your mother and father," said Baltimore firefighter Ralph T. Aldridge. "You ask, 'Where are they going?' And when you get older and you go to a fire and see what they do, it's even more spectacular."

Aldridge, 32, a lanky man whose curly black hair reaches the collar of his city Fire Department T-shirt, grew up chasing firetrucks on his bike through the streets of Highlandtown and finally landed the job of his childhood fantasies three years ago.

In his spare hours, too, he rushes to fires, carrying not ax nor hose but video camera. He operates a small business, Fireshowing Video Productions, selling edited videotapes of Baltimore's biggest fires by mail and at shows.

Aldridge stood at the expo's flea market after the morning parade, flanked by two television monitors showing his wares. Among his biggest hits: an hourlong video of the 11-alarm November fire that destroyed the Hollins Street Exchange, burning out 50 businesses.

He spoke eloquently of the psychology of that distinctive species -- the fire buff.

"Fire's a part of nature that's wild, uncontrolled," he said. "It breathes, it has its own mind. It just fascinates people."

There are 1.5 million firefighters in the United States -- 80 percent of them volunteers -- in 33,000 fire departments, said Bruce Bowling, 57, publisher of Firehouse magazine, a monthly published in Melville, N.Y., that sponsors the expo.

Magazine contributors led most of dozens of classes on such topics as "Building Collapse Indicators," "Protective Clothing" and -- a day before the pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta -- "Multiple Casualty Incidents."

Exhibitors lured crowds with giveaways: a set of 2,000 firefighter trading cards, a hand-held carbon monoxide monitor and the grand prize, an actual "HazMat" firetruck for handling hazardous materials.

At yesterday's flea market, T-shirts declared, "A Woman's Place is in the Firehouse." Buffs with earphones attached to the police scanners on their belts perused plastic fire toys, lurid fire paintings and learned fire books.

The booth of Tom D'Arcangelo, an assistant chief from Long Island, N.Y., was for the serious antiques collector. His costliest item: a well-scarred metal chief's hat from the 1860s for $450.

D'Arcangelo refuses to sell anything he comes across from the New York City Fire Department before 1930. That's his personal patch of fire memorabilia, and one room of his house is a museum dedicated to it.

Sweeping his arm at the other dealers, D'Arcangelo declared: "We're all collectors before we're salesmen."

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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