AN announcement over the squawk box signals Engine Company 31's men in blue to lay down their plastic utensils and paper-towel napkins. They bolt from the dinner table, step into their fire garb, and race off. ``There sits my dinner. Don't eat it,'' Lt. Bill Kelly, a 22-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., Fire Department, warns his dinner guests good humoredly.
The remaining diners seated at the table include a mother and her three-year-old son, a storekeeper, a visiting firefighter from Maryland, a bookkeeper, and an operations manager. All but the firefighter were paying customers in a year-and-a-half old program in which Washington-area firehouses host dinner guests for a modest fee. There is no central organization that arranges such meals - interested individuals check with local firehouses.
What's the draw? ``There's a legend in American culture that firehouses provide the best meals,'' says Barbara Meade, co-owner of a bookstore just down the street.
Firefighter Tim Meade is visiting for another reason. His firehouse doesn't have a program like Engine Company 31, and he believes there are benefits to the public's eating with firefighters.
``You see policemen go up the street every day, and you know what they do. But you don't see firemen unless there's a fire or an emergency, so you don't get to understand what they do unless you see them at a fire or come to dinner,'' he says.
Firehouse cooking began in the 1800s when firemen were on call 24 hours a day, almost every day. Kitchens were added in the '20s when the fire department switched to two shifts, and from the 1920s to 1956 the firefighters celebrated the end of their 72-hour work week each Saturday with a special meal.
Today, cooking remains voluntary among Washington's 1,342 firefighters at their 33 firehouses. The firefighters buy the food before they come to work in the morning - guessing at the amounts and the number of diners. Most meals cost each firefighter and guest $3 to $5. The non-cooks clean up afterwards. Often those who lose at the roll of the dice wash the dishes.
Engine Company 31 is a two-unit house with ambulance that services 100,000 District residents. It gets about 150 calls a month.
``Four to eight o'clock is the busy time of day. Our dinners are interrupted more than we like,'' Lieutenant Kelly explains when he returns 15 minutes later from what turned out to be a wrong-address run.
``There's a great likelihood someone will confuse Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues,'' he tells his guests, who resume eating their marinated steaks, tossed salad, baked potatoes, and garlic bread. They're looking forward to homemade apple pie.
Some firefighters hide the fact they're good cooks because if the secret got out, the other firefighters would call upon their culinary skills all the time. While there is one main cook, other firefighters may walk through the kitchen and add spices to simmering pots.
If the meal turns out badly, the cook says, ``It's not my fault. Someone else fooled around with the ingredients,'' Kelly says. If the dishes turn out well - and most are scrumptious - the firefighter-cook ``throws his chest out further and says `I'm a good cook,''' Kelly adds.
Firefighters do some of their cooking by telephone. ``Sometimes they seek privacy at the pay phone in the firehouse to call their wives to ask, `Is it one teaspoon or one tablespoon? Mayo or salad dressing?''' he says.
``We have to guess how long we'll be gone on a run. We have returned from a fire to face a fire at our firehouse because we judged we wouldn't be gone for as long as we were,'' Kelly says.
The firefighters also have to make a special effort to remember to turn off the stove if they receive a call. ``Nothing is more humbling than to have someone call headquarters to report that smoke is coming from a firehouse,'' writes firefighter Jeffrey A. Stouffer in ``Food on the Stove,'' a compilation of Washington-area firehouse recipes.
Washington is the fourth US city (after San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York) whose firefighters have compiled and published a cookbook. Over 100 D.C. firefighters contributed 250 recipes. (It also includes three recipes from former First Lady Nancy Reagan.)
The spiral-bound cookbook includes appetizers, beverages, sauces, soups, salads, main dishes, vegetables, breads, and desserts, as well as line drawings of fire apparatus, badges, patches, tools and explanations of how firehouse cooking began.
People often hesitate to walk into a firehouse, Kelly says, because of the enormity and noise of the apparatus. ``We encourage people to come in,'' he says, by giving out voter registration information; registering bicycles; offering classes in lifesaving and fire safety; acting as drop-off points for used clothing; by offering a runaway and abused children program, and more.
On the second floor, Engine Company 31 has a museum that displays thousands of items including old fire helmets, photos, newspaper stories, badges, and an alarm dispatching system. Bookstore co-owner Meade says she used to think ``the whole neighborhood was on fire because I saw trucks whizzing by five to six times a day.'' After sharing a meal with the firefighters she has a better understanding of firefighting. And, she says, she knows where to get a good, inexpensive meal. ``Food on the Stove'' is available for $8.95 from The Emerald Society, Suite 131, 4401 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008.