Expo fans the flame of firefighting passion

Trucks, helmets, axes draw crowds of buffs


As each fire apparatus rumbled onto Charles Street during the annual Firehouse Expo parade yesterday, 5-year-old Jordan Schwartzberg called out the type of truck - his father Michael smiling with pride - and then took aim with his blue plastic camera. No matter the camera didn't have film, and Jordan knew it.

The father and son are what attendees at the four-day trade expo that ended yesterday call "fire buffs." They don't fight fires, although Jordan says he wants to when he grows up, but they are obsessed with blazes and all things designed to conquer them.

"He's already keeping the fire-buffing tradition alive," said Jordan's mom, Stacey Needle, who described the family's Pikesville home as being overrun with plastic fire engines, more delicate models and framed photos of real machines. "My husband grew up taking photos at parades like this."

Once a year, on the last day of the expo, Jordan empties his piggy bank and buys a collectible at the post-parade flea market inside the Baltimore Convention Center. This year it was a Tonka ladder truck. His 3-year-old brother, Brandon, bought a miniature ambulance.

"Jordan now will only wear T-shirts from an actual fire company, but it's still OK for my youngest son to just wear a generic one with `Oshkosh' and a fire engine on it," Needle said, laughing at how obsessed her family has become - her father-in-law travels from New York to attend the expo every year. "I'm the only one who can get away with not wearing anything fire-related."

The event drew thousands of people to the convention center yesterday to swap stories, check out just-delivered technology and shop for antique patches, helmets, axes, lanterns and even fire extinguishers. Most firefighters nationwide are volunteers, and Keith Padgett and Billy Hayes, who taught a course earlier on "Alpha Incident Management," said that the same is true at the expo.

"This is really geared toward volunteers and fire buffs," said Padgett, a battalion chief with the Fulton County, Ga., fire department. "Sixty to 70 percent of our students were from volunteer organizations."

Dozens of people crowded around Walter McLaughlin's booth yesterday - two tables with neatly ordered three-ring binders on them. Clipped inside the binders were plastic sheets filled with 3-inch-by-5-inch photos of fire trucks labeled and organized by make, model and jurisdiction - "Anne Arundel County," "Baltimore City" and so on. McLaughlin, who repairs fire equipment for a living, sells the photos for $1 each.

McLaughlin, of Baltimore, also comes from a long line of fire buffs, according to his mother, Lillian McLaughlin, who sat in a lawn chair behind the booth. She said it started with Walter's grandmother, who would run out of her Baltimore home whenever she heard an engine roar past. She once did so with food still on her stove and returned to a small kitchen fire of her own, Lillian McLaughlin said.

Her late husband caught the bug from his mom. As a young man, he delivered coffee to firefighters in the winter and cold drinks in the summer with the Box 414 auxiliary unit. Joseph W. McLaughlin later became a lieutenant with the Baltimore City Fire Department.

"It runs in the family," she said.


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