- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2001

Reporting a fire 50-plus years ago was more complicated than dialing 911. Way more complicated.

In 1945, bright-red alarm boxes stood on the street corners of most major cities. Pulling the handle sent a signal to a watch desk, where someone sat on duty 24 hours a day. The alarm set off a chain reaction through circuit registers, transmitters, telegraph signals, bells and flashing lights. It´s difficult to explain precisely how it worked, but tour guides at the Fire Museum of Maryland can.

Located in Lutherville, Md., just north of Baltimore, the fire museum is home to the most extensive collection of antique firefighting apparatus in the country. More than 40 fire engines dating from 1806 to 1957 are on permanent display, representing hand-pulled, horse-drawn and motorized equipment. The collection includes video and photo displays, clothing and helmets, toys, artwork and communications equipment.

The museum is housed in a large, hangarlike space that may be of special interest to families. Most of the objects are not sealed behind glass, and staff members stand at attention, ready to discuss the collection.

The museum is divided by period so visitors easily can follow the evolution of firefighting. An 1839 James Smith hand-drawn pumping engine, for example, represents the detail, workmanship and adornment representative of early engines.

"Fire engines were copiously decorated," the display says, "even to the point of having an oil painting on the pump chamber."

Manager Debbie Brown says her favorite element of the museum is the steam-engine collection.

"We have five," she says. "That makes us exceptional, because there are only about 300 known to survive. We have a steamer in the hand-drawn section, the horse-drawn section and the motorized section, so we show all three of those time periods."

An 1885 Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. steam pumping engine is considered one of the most romantic aspects of fire history, she says. When the alarm sounded, the horses usually gigantic Percherons would run from their stalls to take their places at the harness.

Steve Kelly, visiting from Pennsylvania with his wife, in-laws and two small boys, says the family was enjoying their visit.

"We especially liked hearing the guy telling us about the dispatch room and the fire-alarm boxes," he says.

"The bells, the whistles and the horns the boys like anything that makes noise," Mr. Kelly´s father-in-law adds.

But the most enticing part of the museum, from a child´s perspective, is the Discovery Room. There, children ages 2 to 10 can explore the world of firefighting on their terms while their parents sit down and take a well-deserved rest.

Children will find rows of child-size firefighting outfits, including boots. Once outfitted, they can sit behind the wheel of a 1938 fire engine and play on a wooden fire truck. There are fire-related books and toys as well.

"You usually can find a visitor who spends 30 minutes on the floor and one hour in the Discovery Room," Ms. Brown says.

She also says the museum staff focuses on fire safety for the children.

"We have always tried to teach fire history, but we really have partnered that now with fire safety and prevention," she says.

Visitors on Thursdays and Saturdays can participate weather permitting in fire-safety house tours. The tours are free to paying visitors and are offered between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

"In the house tours, we re-create a fire situation using nontoxic smoke, strobe lights and smoke detectors," Ms. Brown says. "We have a bedroom on the ground and the first floor and teach kids how to get out of two different situations."

In addition, visitors might enjoy the 30- to 40-minute story times offered by Ms. Brown every Friday at 11:30 a.m. The sessions include a fire-safety book and activity. Then comes the really important part.

"We look at a 911 computer, and I teach the children how to make the call and about the important information they need to know," she says.

"This museum is a place for 2- to 102-year-olds," Ms. Brown says. "There is something for everyone here. Senior citizens are wonderful because they can tell me stories it´s something that triggers memories for them. And for kids, just hearing a siren gets them connected."

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