Mix of emotion and the mundane

In some ways, it was yet another convention of union leaders filling a massive hotel ballroom to vote on dues increases and complain about perennial issues from collective bargaining to health benefits.

Yet projected on every wall of that ballroom in haunting white letters were the names of scores of fellow members now dead. Big, burly men with bushy mustaches wept openly from time to time. And the conference title, usually something cheerful, was the somber "Never Forget."

Here and there at this meeting of about 2,000 leaders of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a delegate could be heard arguing on behalf of expanded holiday benefits or electing a longtime leader to a special board post. But stop any member to ask him what the most important part of this conference is, and he'll sound like James Bunce of Davie, Fla.: "We've come together to move forward as a union and to be grateful for the show of support" that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Conventioneers discovered Wednesday that a uniquely Vegas "show of support" is about to become a permanent attraction on the Strip. Since Sept. 11, tourists and locals have tied thousands of T-shirts from police and fire departments around the world to the rail outside a replica of the Statue of Liberty at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. So, capitalizing on the IAFF event, casino president Felix Rappaport gathered attendees at the base of the faux Lady Liberty in 110-degree weather to announce that the casino will build a memorial to house all those shirts.

"Every year, thousands and millions of people will come to Las Vegas and New York-New York to pay tribute," Mr. Rappaport predicted.

Back at the convention center, there was other evidence that the 2002 conference was different. Consider the scene in the exhibit hall where, mixed among the typical booths offering information on burn treatments and fire-truck accessories, was one displaying new technologies developed for combat troops – and also of potential use for firefighters in terrorist attacks. These wares from the National Protection Center, a research arm of the Department of Defense, included a blue bodysuit with an inner lining made of a "selectively permeable membrane." It's good for, among other tasks, running into a subway full of anthrax, because "it allows sweat and body heat to escape while keeping poisonous gases from biological or chemical weapons out," the NPC's Bill Haskell explained.

Mr. Haskell also showed off the "Scorpion Helmet," a $4,000 piece of headgear with a special green lens through which the viewer can find people in dark or smoky places. It's even got a built-in global-positioning system so other rescuers can find the wearer in case of complications.

"Firefighters will always be first to rush in if and when there is a bioterrorist attack," said Haskell, who also was asking IAFF members to fill out a "chemical and biological suit questionnaire" to get input on what sort of garments would be useful.

Still, even if this is a brave new world of firefighters, the gathering did revert to age-old form by rallying its members with firebrand speeches against the Republican Party – and President Bush in particular.

The predominantly Democratic membership went wild amid speeches by Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, and IAFF general president Harold Schaitberger. Both attacked Mr. Bush for vetoing on Tuesday a $5.1 billion appropriations bill, which contained about $340 million of concern to firefighters. (Bush said the bill was bloated by unnecessary projects.)

By the end of Mr. Schaitberger's talk, the hall was so enraged that one attendee moved that IAFF members boycott an Oct. 6 event in Washington, where Bush is expected to honor fallen firefighters from Sept. 11 and other incidents over the past year. The motion passed unanimously.

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