The banner was an early greeting to the estimated 20,000 firefighters and friends who will fill the town this weekend for the Northwestern Ohio Volunteer Firefighters Association's 2004 convention. There will be food, prizes, and a chance to watch many of the volunteers soak one another with fire hoses.
By 7 tonight, fire trucks will sit bumper-to-bumper in the streets, their sirens blaring and lights aglow.
"Everybody rolls out the red carpet and welcomes them in," said Delphos Councilman Jim Knebel, recalling the city's last convention in 1997.
"The streets are absolutely filled to capacity. It pretty much bisects the town. It may not seem like much to a city the size of Toledo," Mr. Knebel said, "but here it's pretty significant."
The 130th annual convention, which Delphos has now hosted seven times since 1903, squeezes the trappings of a county fair into two days, firefighter-style.
Visitors can view fire trucks dating back as far as the 1800s in the annual parade, high school girls will represent their hometown departments in the volunteer firefighters' Queens Contest, and anyone willing to buy a $100 ticket can win up to $18,000 in a raffle.
Then there's the popular waterball competition - a watery tug-of-war of sorts where rival teams try to hose an overhanging steel ball toward their opponent's side. The team that holds the ball away longest in a three-minute bout wins trophies and the year's bragging rights.
But aside from tournaments that spray spectators and contests for a child's fire truck pedal car - "for the little firefighter in all of us," one ad claims - past participants say they most enjoy seeing old friends amid the convention's new faces.
"I don't want to say it's overwhelming, you know, but it's a great feeling - a fantastic feeling," said Ottoville Fire Department Safety Inspector Randy McKnight, the association's president.
"You see guys you haven't seen in a long time, and you get to see how they're doing," Mr. McKnight said. "Some guys at those conventions I haven't seen in 15 years."
Those who visit Delphos, which calls itself "America's Friendliest City," will find firefighting ingrained in a community that displays a 1929 Gramm fire truck in a small museum just off the main business district. They will eat hamburgers and brats from local vendors scattered throughout town.
And they will rock to local bands Three Sheets in the Wind and Southern Guns at the Delphos Recreation Center near a makeshift campground.
In return, the visitors will infuse local restaurants and the Arrow Motel with weekend business.
"Obviously, they'll benefit tremendously," Jack Westrich, a local businessman, said as he walked along Main Street. "This convention, it's good for the community, it's good for the department, and it gives Delphos a chance to open its doors to the outside world."
He added, "I'm sure we'll keep all the people who come entertained."
For Mr. Westrich, the owner of Westrich's Home Furnishing Annex, the celebration elicits memories of his late father, whom he described as a "very civic-minded" volunteer firefighter who leaped at the chance for action.
Several volunteer firefighters worked in the Westrich's stores on off days, he added.
Mr. Westrich's father, Mel, tallied 40 years with the Delphos fire department before retiring. "When their whistle blew, he would just leave the shop," his 53-year-old son recalled. "Business took a back seat. He loved fighting fires."
Steeped in tradition, the convention was created for member departments to handle yearly business - electing new officers, announcing recent deaths, and addressing new rules and training. It evolved quickly into a chance for summer relaxation.
Mel Westrich coordinated the parades and, in 1942, had to room 300 men at local homes. Times were simpler, but over the years the convention developed a reputation as a giant party where alcohol flowed freely.
"I remember the one in '72," Mr. Westrich said. "That was wild."
Police this year are enforcing alcohol laws, though, and open containers are prohibited from sitting atop engines, as they had previously.
Officials have also set an 11 p.m. curfew for the formal festivities.
The upped enforcement stems, at least in part, from the 2002 convention in Swanton, where Fire Chief Jim Guy was reportedly seen driving a fire truck after drinking beer and intimately touching and kissing a female emergency technician he supervised.
Two village employees fell off the truck because he was driving too fast, witnesses said.
Delphos businesses will still offer a variety of food, drink, and entertainment options, said Wayne Suever, the city's fire rescue chief.
"There are still places they can go to get a drink if they're thirsty," he said.
Announcing the open-container ban was part of a series of preparations the department began last year. Coordinating a convention for a group with more than 250 fire and emergency medical service agencies from 37 counties in northwest Ohio hasn't posed any great challenges, firefighters said.
"As you close in on the last two weeks, it's kind of chaotic," said Don Moreo, a Delphos firefighter. "We sent out registration sheets in March, for instance, but everyone waits until the last minute."
Preparations aside, life for Delphos fire and rescue continues as usual. Minutes after being interviewed one recent morning, an emergency call came for an emergency response to a car accident at Franklin and Fifth streets.
Another chance to help the community.
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