- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

It’s been a long time since Vito Maggiolo had to clean the pots after dinner at the firehouse. He’s been at Rescue Squad 1 in downtown Washington long enough to do the more interesting chores, such as checking the equipment or racking the hose.

He’s always ready jump on the truck in response to a call, but during downtime, he’s just as happy to sit around and shoot the breeze with the guys from 2 Platoon.

As much as Mr. Maggiolo is one of the guys, however, he’s not technically a fireman. He’s what’s known as a fire buff.

Ask any fireman if his house has a buff, and he’ll know what you’re talking about. Buffs are the rock groupies of the firefighting world. They have encyclopedic knowledge of firefighting history, equipment and techniques.

Most carry scanners, to know where the fire is at all times. They carry pagers tapped into elaborate buff-run nationwide networks that alert them to fires all over the country.

For whatever reasons, they’ve not been able to become career firefighters, but since the first time they saw a red engine speeding down the street, they’ve been hooked. Some will know the history of a particular firehouse better than the actual firefighters working there.

“I’ve been a buff as far back as I can recall,” says Mr. Maggiolo, 51, whose eyesight wasn’t good enough for him to join the department. He remembers his mother carrying him to see the firetruck at Engine Company 62 in the Bronx when he was 8 years old.

“Initially, it’s just the visuals. The young kids come to see the truck and the lights and they hang out. Some of them grow up and move on. But there are a certain percentage, like myself, who don’t.”

And for that percentage, there is, of course, a club. Mr. Maggiolo, a CNN assignment editor by day, is a member of the Friendship Fire Association. The Washington-area group aims “to perpetuate the international hobby of Fire Buffing by educational and social endeavors.” It also operates a canteen wagon at the scenes of fires, providing refreshments and shelter to firemen while they battle blazes.

Buff clubs are common in urban areas where there often isn’t an opportunity for firefighting enthusiasts to become volunteer firefighters. Still, many volunteer firefighters are buffs, and vice versa.

“Buffs have what I like to call ‘the romance of firefighting’ in the blood,” says Keith Franz of the International Fire Buff Association, an umbrella group that includes 90 buff clubs across the U.S. and Canada, and various individual members in Great Britain and Germany.

He estimates that among the IFBA’s 5,000 members, there are electricians, plumbers, lawyers, tailors, ministers and journalists. It is often said that former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is the biggest buff around.

So while most people would run away from a fire, why do these guys run to it?

“There’s a certain excitement and spontaneity,” says Mr. Maggiolo. “The real interest is watching the firefighting. It’s like watching this primeval battle between good and evil.”

“The activity and action can carry a certain amount of intrigue,” says Mr. Franz. “Buffs at a fire scene are usually discussing strategy. ‘How are they attacking a fire? Where is ventilation needed?’ That sort of thing.”

To an outsider, all of this may seem not too far removed from pyromania.

Mr. Franz and his fellow buffs have heard that accusation a number of times. “It’s the furthest thing from the truth,” he says. “Buffs are interested in fire safety. People maybe think buffs are just overgrown kids chasing a fire engine, but we don’t have any problems. Our energy is directed toward community projects.”

The IFBA, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, raises money for burn centers and sponsors smoke-alarm campaigns. Many buff groups are involved in advocacy programs for families of fallen firefighters.

And not all buffs chase fires. For some, the hobby means collecting paraphernalia, including hats, antique equipment and patches from firehouses around the world. Some like to visit firehouses in other cities when they travel, just to meet the firemen and see how things are done there.

The term “buffs,” according to popular buff lore, comes from the days when fire departments used horses. When the weather was cold, buffalo-skin coats were used to keep the horses warm. Guys who hung around at the firehouse but weren’t actual firefighters would often help by putting the coats on the horses. Thus, the shortened term for “buffalo” got applied to them.

But while a buff just used to be the guy who hung around a particular firehouse, the modern trend is for them to be organized and belong to clubs such as the Friendship Fire Association or the IFBA. But that doesn’t mean that the tradition of the house buff is dead.

Jarrid Gaston has been at 16 Engine on 13th Street NW longer than some of the firefighters who work there. He started hanging out as a little boy in the 1980s, some time after he’d witnessed his own father’s murder and been placed in foster care. “We pretty much took him in,” says Lt. Jeff Wright.

Mr. Gaston would help out around the station, sweeping and mopping the floor, or washing the trucks. Some nights when he had nowhere else to stay, he slept at the firehouse. He got a uniform with his name on it. “Now he helps us with the journals and the computer stuff,” says Lt. Wright. “He’s like the mascot.”

Maybe he’s a bit more than that. The guys of 16 Engine tried for years to help Mr. Gaston get his general equivalency diploma, or GED, pushing him to study and punishing him when he didn’t.

And even though that goal never materialized, he’s still very much a fixture in the house. He even got the ultimate nod of acceptance from the firefighters — a nickname. They all call him “Old Face.”

“Ever since he was about 12, he’s looked 40,” says Lt. Wright. “It may sound derogatory to other people, but to us it’s a term of affection. If we didn’t like him, he wouldn’t be around. He’s like part of the family.”

And while buffing might seem a strange hobby to some, firefighters do seem to appreciate the interest. “Look, these guys come out in the freezing weather in February to run canteen service for us,” says Lt. Wright. “And we figure as long as a visitor doesn’t make a pest of themselves, we’re glad to have them. Sometimes, it’s as interesting for us as it is for them.”

Probably the person with the most reason to complain about fire buffing is Mr. Maggiolo’s wife, Colleen. She’s learned over the years to sleep through a cacophony of pagers going off in the middle of the night. “She tolerates it,” he says with a laugh. “My wife knows every couple of days, it’s firehouse night. It’s certainly my second love.”

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