When bagpipe music cut through the morning air on Light Street to signal the start of the Firehouse Expo 2005 parade yesterday, Saud Al-Mahrouq pranced and danced as 3-year-boys are likely to do when firetrucks pass by.
Saud's curbside enthusiasm for each passing truck, engine and emergency vehicle - whether it was antique or the latest rig from a municipal or volunteer company - never waned as he waved at grownups in the parade painting downtown Baltimore red.
Besides watching the parade, Saud recently went to the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville, said his mother, Stacie Al-Mahrouq, who divides her time between Ellicott City and Saudi Arabia. "We do a lot with fire engines."
One of the Lutherville museum's prized pieces was in the parade, a 1898 water tower - a maneuverable device fitted with a hose - that helped quench the Great Fire of 1904 that burned much of downtown Baltimore.
An estimated 16,000 firefighters converged on the city for the 22nd annual Firehouse Expo, a four-day event hosted by the city Fire Department that ended yesterday at the convention center.
The expo, the largest event of its kind on the East Coast, has become a place for participants to sharpen skills and learn new material, trade notes with fellow first-responders and strengthen morale. It allowed firefighters to "meet up with brothers from all over the country," said William Winning, chief of the Brentwood Fire Department on Long Island, N.Y., and a New York City detective. Many brought their families to the event.
Firefighters said the public's perception of their job changed markedly after Sept. 11, when nearly 350 New York City firefighters perished in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
"I lost a lot of good friends that day, which changed the whole face of the fire service," Winning said. "Now we're on the forefront of [fighting] terrorism."
With homeland security concerns expanding their job descriptions, many firefighters at the convention said they signed up for lectures or presentations on subjects such as "The Art of the 21st-Century High-Rise," "Ground Ladders: The Forgotten Art" and "Commanding Large Incidents."
The first clue on how to how to command crises, the subtitle says, is not by yourself; teamwork is everything.
Stephen Tucker, the fire chief of Hanover, Mass., said yesterday he was on his first visit to Baltimore, which he said reminded him of Boston with a more pleasant pace. "Since I've been [fire] chief for 21 years, the continuing education in management is important," Tucker said.
One session offered an analysis of a 2003 fire in a Rhode Island nightclub, in which nearly 100 people died.
But from the vantage point of the parade and public yesterday, there was very little to analyze or criticize.
Darryl Parker, an East Baltimorean and regular paradegoer, said the scene of flashing, high-tech life-saving equipment was impressive. "I'd give it a 9," he said, on a scale of 1 to 10.
"Firefighters don't get respect, not like they should," Parker said. "People should go up to a firehouse and say `Thank you.' In a burning building, on the brink of death, they bring life back to you."
As a coda to the parade, Saud said hello to a pair of firefighters from Nashua, N.H., Robert Fitz Jr., 44, and his 20-year-old son, Shawn, now in training. In the firefighting community, they said, following a father's footsteps into the field is not uncommon.
"I did it with my father and now he's doing it with me," said Robert Fitz Jr. "I had no choice because it was in my blood."
And then he smiled at Saud, still in a high state of excitement. "How're you doing, buddy?"