Dispatching coffee, comfort Alarmers: In Anne Arundel County, a few hardy volunteers speed to the scene of every major fire, not to do battle but to serve weary and chilled firefighters with hot coffee and food.

December 12, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

As firefighting goes, their services are unglamorous. They don't ever do battle with pickaxes on the front line, guide heaving hoses or rush into burning houses to save toddlers and beloved pets.

But the Anne Arundel Alarmers, 32 fire buffs who are mostly retirees, do make sure that firefighters get all the coffee, doughnuts and hot dogs they can eat between flames and smoke.

"They're much needed," Annapolis firefighter John Hill said Tuesday, as he enjoyed a cup of beef stew outside the Alarmers' truck on a five-minute break from the fire that swept through five historic district businesses. "We've been here a few hours, and we'll probably be here four or five hours more. Any break like this is great."

At least four such volunteer groups operate in the Baltimore area; about 90 are known across the United States and Canada, according to Roman A. Kaminski, executive vice president of the Baltimore-based International Fire Buffs Associates.

The Ferndale-based Alarmers turn out for every two-alarm commercial fire and three-alarm residential fire in Anne Arundel County, and occasionally in parts of the Eastern Shore and Baltimore. The group was formed in the winter of 1958 when three friends watching a fire at an A & P food store on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie realized firefighters were freezing and there was no hot coffee around.

Within months, they bought an old bread truck and converted it to a coffee wagon. A few years later they got a bus, then a small truck.

In 1990, with a grant from the county Fire Department, they went deluxe -- a $250,000, 40-foot truck, equipped with a kitchenette, bathroom and paramedic equipment. The Alarmers keep it stocked with soup, coffee and frozen hot dogs and are ready 24 hours a day for the 80 to 130 fires and police sobriety checkpoint operations they cover every year.

Tuesday, an Alarmer dispatcher beeped four members about the Annapolis fire at about 6 p.m. Ben Barrell, 61, and Ron Carlson, 68, two designated drivers, hurried to the Alarmers' Ferndale base at 115 Glenmont Avenue, hopped into the truck and sped to Annapolis.

Steve and Cris Saghy were baking Christmas cookies in their Ferndale home when the beep sounded. They rushed to Dunkin' Donuts for a quick 10 dozen (not enough, as it turned out) and headed for Annapolis.

The coffee was brewed and the doughnuts laid out by 6: 45 p.m. But for a long while, firefighters weren't biting.

"Usually, when we pull up, [firefighters] are right there," Cris Saghy said. "I mean, they're even helping us unload."

Saghy, a National Security Agency manager, had to be at work at 4 a.m. but was willing to sacrifice sleep. She blamed her interest in helping out on her Girl Scout days and her commitment to the Alarmers on her husband, a former volunteer firefighter who encouraged her to sign up.

"I miss working with the guys, but I had to give it up because I couldn't do heavy lifting any more," said Steve Saghy, a retired quality control manager. "When I see these firefighters, it brings back memories."

Barrell also has been on the other side of the doughnuts. He was a Baltimore firefighter for 35 years until he retired in 1995.

"I know what it's like to be on the other side when it's cold out there, to get that hot cup of coffee," he said. "Man, it's great."

Cyndi Wiley, an Annapolis firefighter, took advantage of another Alarmers' convenience -- the bathroom. She also said she enjoys chatting with Alarmers during breaks from fighting flames.

"When you're stressed, they're definitely a comfort," she said, pulling on her big bunker pants to head back out to the flames on Main Street.

That night, the Alarmers stayed on the scene until 5: 30 a.m., doling out 20 dozen doughnuts, 300 hot dogs, 400 sodas, 8 gallons of coffee and 3 gallons of soup. "It's almost," Wiley said, "like having mom and dad around."

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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