Engine Company 25 is the runningest firehouse in Washington. The little red firehouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue sits in the middle of the city's poorest, meanest and most-likely-to-burn neighborhood.

That far Southeast neighborhood features: curbside marijuana and cocaine merchants who run a 24-hours takeout service, teenage arsonists who kindle garbage in abandoned buildings, gunfighterss who splatter blood on sidewalks in point-blank disputes over pocket change.

Engine Company 25 chases more fires and emergency calls than any other house in the District of Columbia. Last year, the men in the little red firehouse responded to 2,533 alarms.

The firehouse, built 78 years ago when the rolling hills of Congress Heights were cornfields and cow pastures, has an unofficial, modern-day motto: "We're the firehouse on the hill. You light 'em, we'll fight 'em." It was dreamed up long after the cow pastures gay way to Al's Thrifty Liquor, the Club Zambezi and thousands of crumbling walk-up apartments.

In Congress Heights, there is a soft-spoken teen-ager for whom that motto seems invented. The 17-year-old boy, Metropolitan Police arson investigators believe, has set more than 60 fires in the last six months, including one blaze in his own apartment building. The firefighters of Engine 25 speak of the boy as a satanic presence prowling garbage-strewn streets. They call him the Torch. They believe he sets the fires, as many as four in one day, in kitchens of abandoned and partially abandoned apartment buildings. They believe he has polished his skills as an arsonist, learning how to rip plaster from ceilings so flames will spread. Some people in his neighborhood, who've seen scores of apartments gutted by arsonists, say they know who the arsonist is. When they go to bed at night, they say they fear he will burn them up. He's been arrested twice. But arson is hard to prove, requiring eyewitnesses or the kind of evidence that fire usually destroys. So the boy, who lives with his mother and neither works nor goes to school, is out on the streets again.

The Torch is but one small element in a neighborhood that breeds fire. The major element is poverty. A maxim for fire destruction in the American cities is that the poorer the neighborhood is, the more it burns. Congress Heights is Washington's poorest neighborhood. By nearly every statistical measure, life in Congress Heights is more miserable than in any other part of the nation's capital. More than one-quarter of its residents receive welfre and food stamps. Of the families with children, 42 percent are one-parent households. Congress Heights also leads the city in infant mortality and abandoned buildings.

Entire streets lined with three-story brick apartment buildings are nightmarishly quiet. No one, for example, lives on 13th Place SE. Every visible window is broken in the 500 apartments on the dead-end street. Plumbing fittings have been stolen; copper wiring has been ripped out. The Congress Park Apartments, which were popular 20 years ago among single working women for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are not brick shells with sagging porches, garbage and rats.

In this most-likely-to-burn section of Washington, the District of Columbia Fire Department has seen fit to station the fewest firefighters per capita of any city neighborhood. In the primarily white neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park -- probably the least-likely-to-burn area of the city -- there is apaproximately one firefighter for every 2,053 people. But in Congress Heights, which is more than 94 percent black, there is approximately one firefighter for every 4,869 residents. Fire department officials say the reason for the disparity is geographic. The area extends like a stubby finger away from the rest of the District and the department's grid of fire stations.

The firefighters of Engine 25 believe that Congress Heights -- separated from the rest of Washington by the Anacostia River and its own culture of poverty -- exists in a nether world that has next to nothing in common with the white stone splendor and power-wielding potentates of the federal city. It is a demeaning irony, the firefighters say, that the crumbling buildings of Congress Heights afford a spectacular vies of the Capitol and the monuments.

"We don't even consider this a part of Washington," says Robert Skinner, a black firefighter born in Southeast and a veteran of 13 years of chasing fires there. "The neighborhood has just got a reputation. I would not walk the streets around here day or night, you understand. I'm not crazy. There's too much buying and selling activity. The dope dealers own the neighborhood. It is all bad, all bad."

The view from the firehouse is understandably one-sided and bleak. There are pockets of middle-class housing in Congress Heights and parts of the area hvae undergone a resurgence in recent years, with the construction of a few hundred new townhouses and the opening of the first new bank branch in 25 years.

There's a deceptive rhythm to firefighting in Congress Heights. Weekdays are slow, often langorous. Firefighters can pretend they have chosen a game way to make a living. But on weekend nights they are denied any pretensions. They simply chase after misery -- drug overdoses, shootings, knifings, false alarms, fires. The nights are filled with stop-frame images of hysteria, of victims with strange glassy eyes and faces contorted by fear.

This is an account of five working days -- three weekdays and two weekend nights -- with one 10-member platoon in the little red firehouse.

First day. Tuesday morning, 10:25 a.m. A sour-sounding tone echoes through the two-story firehouse on loudspeakers, followed by the monotone voice of the downtown dispatcher: "Local alarm, Engine 25, Truck 8." The numbers mean that everyone in the firehouse on Martin Luther King Avenue must run. There's a fire in the kitchen, 1010 Varney St. SE. Fifteen seconds later, 42 tons of horn-bleating, siren-screeching, blazing red trucks thunder out both doors of the firehouse. Out the left door roars Ladder Truck 8 and a crew of five. Out the right door goes Engine Company 25 -- a fire wagon with a four-member crew and a one-man pumper truck. It's the first run of the day for Platoon 3, which started work at 6:30 a.m.

In the two minutes or so after the trucks leave and before the garage doors close automatically, the firehouse is open to thieves. Everyone has gone to the fire. Thieves can stroll in, walk across the empty apparatus floor, go on back to the kitchen and wood paneled television room, climb a flight of stairs to the 15-bed bunk room and steal anything that isn't chained down. The house has lost three television sets (the present set is chained down) along with countless wallets, watches and rings.

The trucks make the 10-block run to the fire in less than five minutes. District regulations say they are supposed to go no faster than 35 miles an hour on residential streets, but they often go 60. The tiny fire, which was ignited in a bundle of laundry by a frayed electrical cord, is quickly snuffed. iBack at the firehouse, two firefighters spend 30 minutes filling out a District Fire Department Field Incident Report on a fire that took less than a minute to put out.

Second run of Tuesday, 12:48 p.m. The firehouse loudspeakers issue another low-key bleep and the dispatcher announces that a car has crashed into a school at the corner of Darrington Street and South Capitol Terrace. Again, 42 tons of fire trucks rumble out the door. Five minutes later the trucks stop near the front door of Patterson Elementary, where a red Toyota has smashed into the brick school. The driver, Doc Hill, 26, who only minutes before had bought the car for $460 at a District police auction sale, lies moaning on the ground with a broken cheekbone and a broken nose. The brakes failed on his take-as-it-is used car. Luckily, Hill managed not to hit any of the children playing outside the school. An ambulance, stationed 20 blocks from Engine 25, arrives three minutes after the fire trucks to carry Hill away. At Hadley Memorial hospital one hour later, a doctor tells Hill, who is unemployed and has no health insurance, that he will need a $4,000 operation to repair his face. While Hill ponders the operation, police officer C.E. Jackson arrives to issue a $25 ticket for defective brakes.

"The poor bastard," mutters Lt. Bill Andrews, signaling his men to return to the firehouse. Andrews, 42, with 17 years in the fire department and six years in the firehouse on Martin Luther King Avenue, has seen unluckier people. He has watched helplessly as two children burned to death in an apartment on 22nd Street SE. The windows of that apartment were barred and the rescue saw couldn't cut through in time. Last December on Danbury Street SW, Lt. Andrews responded to a call described as a water leak and found a shivering naked baby in an overflowing bathtub. The outside temperature was 12 degrees and all the windows in the apartment were wide open. The baby's mother, also naked, was wandering around the apartment amid water-soaked, three-foot-deep piles of dirty diapers, Chinese food, hot dogs, toilet paper and garbage. The mother was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital, the federal psychiatric hospital located seven blocks from the firehouse. The baby was put in a foster home.

Like the other firefighters on his shift, Andrews seems to have developed an immunity to the gruesome, sometimes nauseating aspects of fire and rescue in the ghetto. A vigorous, almost hyperactive man who pounds tables with the palms of his hands, Andrews loves being a firefighter. He has risked his life to save children from burning to death and says nothing else he could do would be as satisfying. But like the 80 percent of Washington's firefighters who live in the suburbs, Andrews drives out of the city when his shift is done. He lives in rural Charles County where he feels his family is safe.

Those who live in Congress Heights must find their safety in barred windows, triple-locked doors and padlocked roof hatches. At Ballou High School and Hart Junior High, fire doors are locked with chains and barricaded with four-by-fours to keep out drug peddlers and muggers. Bars and chains can transform homes and public buildings into death chambers when fire breaks out.

Fire plagues District Heights because, in many cases, its buildings are overcrowded, maintenance is poor, heating systems are in bad repair, hallways are clogged with garbage, fire alarms are broken by vandals, fire extinguishers are stolen or obsolete or sabotaged. Vandals regularly use matches to melt shut the plastic spray nozzles on soda-acid fire extinguishers. If the high-pressure chemical spray is unable to pass through the melted nozzle, extinguishers can become bombs, rupturing the steel casing, maiming or killing users.

Congress Heights residents play the percentages, sticking with the bars and chains and four-by-fours. Crime is more prevalent than fire. Police make about 45 arrests a week among the curbside drug merchants and customers of the 24-hour good-time takeout that recently relocated from Condon Terrace (once known as the "meanest street in town") to nearby Varney Street. Between 1975 and 1980, 11 people in the neighborhood died in fires but 225 were murdered.

Second Day. Wednesday, 9:10 a.m. No runs yet; Wednesdays are notoriously slow. Stuart Luckett, 38, a black firefighter with a gold front tooth and a garrulous manner, tries out a new pancake recipe in the kitchen while his colleagues in the adjacent television room compare the photographs of Rita Jenrette as she appears in Playboy with the clothed version who happens to be on the Phil Donahue show. The firehouse is rife with the smell of frying bacon.

Forgotten, at least temporarily, in the clubby firehouse ambience are cultural, racial and sexual differences among the four white men, five black men and one white woman of Platoon 3. John Goff, a white 40-year-old pumper truck driver from Camp Springs, has little in common with Donald Lee, a black 30-year-old hose man who was born and raised in Congress Heights. Goff, who will retire at the end of the year with 20 years in the department, is a loud, pot-bellied man with a pompadour. He's married, has a family, drives a Ford pick-up truck with an ah-ooh-gah horn and never sleeps in a firehouse bed without first slipping a 3/4-inch plywood board under his mattress.

Lee, who has just four years of seniority, is a former all-city guard and captain of the Carroll High School football team. A quiet man, he lives alone in Congress Heights and talks a great deal about astrological disturbances and planetary collisions that could destroy the earth. As a wild card in the television room, there's Donna Gray, 27, one of only 10 women in the District fire department. A former secretary, she has been eating and sleeping in the firehouse for six months and feels that because she's a woman she's resented by the men on her shift. She's right -- she is resented.

But the firehouse on Martin Luther King Avenue is mroe harmonious than many of the 31 other houses in the city that have a similar potential for bickering. The reason, according to those who work there, is that Engine 25 runs. The firefighters in Congress Heights do not spend all their time waiting for something to happen, as do their colleagues in Georgetown or on upper Wisconsin Avenue.

Firefighters often see more of each other than their families. Platoons rotate through three day shifts, three night shifts and three days off. The days are nine hours long, the nights 16. Platoon 3 eats together at the same table and sleeps in the same bunk room. The long hours make it almost impossible to hide personal animosity.

Says firefighter Ray Sneed: "When I was at Truck 12 (in Georgetown, two years ago), the blacks ate in the TV room and the white guys ate on the apparatus floor. But here we active, so we can sit together, eat together and talk about our work."

First run of Wednesday, 3:04 p.m. An apartment fire at 2615 Stanton Rd. SE. Box alarm. This could mean a large, working fire. Four engine companies, two ladder companies, a rescue squad and a battalion chief are sent from four firehouses. Donald Lee, the fire-wagon driver who worries about the end of the world, takes a wrong turn enroute to the fire. A wrong turn can spell death for fire victims, but today Lee's goof means nothing. Another engine company, located closer to the address than Engine 25, found the apartment first. It was a minor kitchen fire. A slow, boring day ends at 3:30 with the arrival of the night shift.

The eight men and one woman who work under Lt. Andrews and Capt. James Hunt in Platoon 3 at the little red firehouse share an odd, complex and strained camaraderie. The kick-their-butts spirit of a high school football team blends with the grouchy weariness of old soldiers too long together.There's also a sprinkling of little-boy lunacy and prep-school pranks. One of the firemen's old tricks was to place a call across King Avenue to the telephone booth that stands next to Bob's Frozen Custard. When a fireman saw an overweight woman passing the booth, he dialed from the firehouse. "Hey, hey, sugar," he said, when the woman picked up the phone. "This is Bo Bo Wilson, WOOK Radio, and you're on the air. If you can hum the tune to the Campbell's soup song, you can win $50." The firemen (this was before Donna Gray arrived) then writhed with laughter on the firehouse floor as their victim sang out loud: "Mmm-mmm good, mmm-mmm good. That's what Campbell's soups are -- mmm-mmm good."

Adolescent good times in the firehouse contrast starkly with the business of running into burning buildings with hoses and axes while other people are running and jumping out. The International Fire Fighters Association says that American firefighters have the highest death rate of any occupation. The union's statistics show that in 1979, a typical year, 79 of every 100,000 firefighters were killed in the line of duty. By comparison (per 100,000 workers), 56 miners, 54 construction workers and 35 police officers were killed.

Incredibly, nearly twice as many firefighters are injured in fires every year as are civilians, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The federal agency says that between 50,000 and 100,000 firefighters, depending on the year are injured annually in fires compared to about 35,000 civilians. The agency says that nearly every big-city firefighter gets hurt every eyar.This includes the 1,336 members of the District Fire Department, rated by insurance underwriters as one of the most effective in the country.

In many ways, the grimmest statistic for firefighters is their life expectancy. The average American firefighter lives about nine years less than the average American. Health authorities speculate this is due to smoke inhalation and severe on-the-job stress.

"You almost cannot design a job that stresses the heart more," says Philip Schaenman of the U.S. Fire Administration. "Firefighters suffer tremendous strain. They are forced out of bed in the middle of the night and within seconds are outside in the cold. Then at the fire they work in heavy gear in several-hundred degree temperatures. This is a young man's job."

Heart failure is common, causing half the annual line-of-duty deaths for firefighters, the U.S. Fire Administration says.

In the firehouse on King Avenue, one firefighter a month, on the average, gets hurt. The most serious recent injury occurred last December. Leonard West, 38, an ax man on the ladder truck, was fighting an arson fire in an abandoned building (a fire that bore the signature of the Torch) when 400 pounds of water-soaked plaster fell on his head. He suffered a pinched nerve in his neck and could not work for 40 days. Other firefighters in the house have suffered broken legs, broken arms, broken ribs, hernias and herniated disks in their backs. Nearly all of them are treated regularly for cuts and smoke inhalation.

At Engine 25, firefighters unwilling to assume the risks are not tolerated. "Once I work myself up to run into a burning building and a firefighter doesn't want to go in there with me, it's worse than shame on him," says Hunt, a 16-year veteran who has been injured in burning buildings three times. "I'll not only cite him for cowardice, I'll call him a chicken ---- son-of-a-bitch."

As a reward for the danger and the tedium, the firefighters at this station make an average of $21,000 a year. Salaries range from $16,356 for rookie John Hampton, who joined the department last summer, to more than $31,000 for Capt. Hunt. Retirements are generous. Firefighters who joined the department before February last year can retire at half-salary after 20 years. Because of abuses in the retirement program, a firefighter who joins the department now must put in 25 years and reach age 50 before he can retire.

Third Day.Thursday. Slow, a very slow gloomy gray day. Rookie Hampton, 27, a 200-pound former scholarship football player at North Carolina A & T, takes one of his monthly street-location exams. Firefighters are supposed to memorize every street, alarm box, hydrant and back-alley access in the neighborhood. This takes months. Where's 500 Foxhall Place? Hamption gives directions from the firehouse door: "Straight on Fourth, left on Xenia, right on Foxhall." Lt. Andrews want to know what's important about Foxhall Place. Hampton doesn't know. "That's where [D.C.] Councilwoman [Wilhelmina] Rolark lives and she watches what we do," Andrews says.

Other than waxing floors and washing trucks, the biggest event of the day is a slide show on "The Firefighter and Plastics in a Changing Environment." Attendance mandatory. Lt. Andrews wonders what the Torch is up to: "Our arsonist is probably sitting inside the house having flashbacks about old fires."

Fourth day. Shift change to nights, the first Friday night of the month. It will be a fast, a very fast night. The welfare checks have been cashed. There's money in Congress Heights for food and rent -- also for liquor, drugs and the parties that result in shootings, knifings and fire. The Torch apparently struck during the day in an abandoned apartment building on Wayne Place SE. It was a kitchen job with pulled ceilings. No witnesses.

Tonight and tomorrow nights will be the last in Engine 25 for the ladder-truck-driver Richard Boone, 42, who's got 20 years in the department. He's transferring to a less demanding job in the fire marshal's office. Boone has chronic back pain that he says is the result of 16 years of running with Engine 25. He's divorced and claims it's partly because he never saw much of his wife.

"I'm burned out. I want to work another 10 years, and I can't do it if I stay here. I used to like this house a whole lot. Now I just don't want to do it anymore. After years of waking up to those alarms, I'm restless at night. I can't sleep. While I'm on night work, my whole personality changes. I'm grouchy less patient," says Boone.

It's the next to the last night, too, for Mike Pinkerton, 27, an ax man considered the best physically conditioned firefighter in the house. He's built like a gymnast and can climb up the walls of buildings with his bare hands. The son of a former District fireman, "Pinky" has spent his entire 10-year career at Engine 25, but he's transferring out to one of the city's slowest fire companies primarily because of women in this firehouse.

"Why are they sending women to my house? When the women tow the line, then I'll accept it. But they can't handle their gear, an oxgyen mask, a Halligan bar [for breaking open locks], an ax, a fan [all of which weighs about 100 pounds] and run up eight flights of stairs like we do. I'm not from the old school like my father. But they had a lot more morale in the old days. They are going to fill this house up with women. I don't want to carry fans for women.I got to bail out of here," Pinkerton said.

Besides, Pinky says he is tierd of working in a neighborhood where firefighters are occasionally pelted with rocks and where no one says thank you.

First run of Friday, 4:47 p.m. Fire in an apartment at 4207 Seventh St. SE. Box alarm. Ten fire trucks from three firehouses pull up to a block of dilapidated three-story apartment buildings. Everyone at Engine 25 knows this neighborhood well. Two months ago Engine 25 ran a medical call here and found a man on the sidewalk who'd been shot to death in an argument over a $10 bill. This afternoon, a food-on-the-stove fire is out in two minutes. Meanwhile, scores of children press against the fire trucks, mesmerized as flashing lights glint in their eyes.

Second run of Friday, 5:10. Another reported fire back on Seventh Street. Engine 25, returning to the station, hears the alarm on the truck radio and races back to find a false alarm. A small boy in a ripped blue jacket stands on a curb to explain: "Hey, mister, that ain't no fire. There's just some kid playing with the phone."

False alarms, as many as 200 a month , used to plague Engine 25 in the mid-70s. But they've been cut to nine a month with the installation last year of telephone call-boxes that replace rip-and-run pull alarms.

Just at dinner time, when everyone sits down to fried chicken, greens and potato salad, Friday night heats up to its normal exhausting, can't-eat-no-hot-food pace. An oil truck accidentally dumps 100 gallons of diesel fuel near an apartment complex and Engine 25 rushes out, only to wait 15 minutes for the police to come and order a cleanup. While the firehouse fried chicken gets colder, the dispatcher announces another food-on-the-stove fire. Then, the fifth run of the night, 7:55, overdose at 3411 Tenth St. SE.

"It's gonna be a long night," says firefighter George Lokey en route. Engine 25 responds to medical calls because its faster to the scene than ambulances. Although trained in first aid, firefighters are not authorized to give medications. They frequently do little more than reassure victims that paramedics are on the way. "The first thing they're gonna say to us when we get out of this truck is that they didn't call for a fire, they called for an ambulance," says Lokey, a 10-year veteran.

"I called an ambulance," says a young black woman in front of the 10th Street apartment. The firefighters follow her up three flights of stairs to find Gregory Wilson, 39, passed out in a spotlessly clean apartment. He's flat on his back next to the dinner table. He's wearing a white undershirt, jeans unbuckled at the waist, socks and no shoes. His eyes are rolled back in his head, his face drips sweat, his legs are spread and he seems to be snoring.

"Heroin," says his grandmother, a wizened woman in pajamas. "He just come from work and he went into the bathroom and we was waiting for him to come out to dinner. I guess he gonna die."

He doesn't die. But he could have if the overdose were stronger. It takes 22 minutes, an eternity in terms of emergency response, for one of the three paramedic units in Washington to arrive. For a city of its size, Washington has one of the slowest and most ill-equipped ambulance and paramedic services in the country, say critics in the firefighters' union.

The paramedics thump Wilson's chest, wrap a tourniquet around his right arm and give him an injection of Narcan, a drug that immediately neutralizes the effects of heroin. Within seconds, Wilson, no longer high, says, "What you doing here? Wha'd I do to you? Get outta here." The firefighters leave.

After three more runs, including another false alarm on Seventh Street, there's a box alarm at 4223 First St. SE -- the dispatcher's too-familiar voice announces that flames are coming from a three-story apartment building. For the ninth time tonight, 42 tons of fire trucks lumber out the door.

"Yeah, smoke," says Lokey, craning his neck in the rear of the speeding fire wagon to glimpse the fire. He's yelling to Pinkerton, who's serving his second-to-last night in Congress Heights, as they wrestle on their rubber boots, canvas coats, fire-retardant hoods, oxygen masks, gloves and hats: "Looks like we got a nice fire."

Orange flames blast out of a first-floor bedroom window. When the trucks stop, Lokey, Pinkerton and the others jump out and charge the burning building. They run at full speed, weaving past each other, carrying hoses, axes, Halligan bars, ladders, fans and lights. It's an intricately choreographed but not very pretty dance -- a blitzkrieg ballet with rubber boots.

Firefighters in the District use the "interior method." Fire hoses are dragged to the source of a fire. At the same time, firefighters ventilate burning buildings by knocking out windows and doors and hooking up electrical fans to portable generators on the ladder truck. Unless the building is ventilated, heat builds up inside, trapping smoke and possibly killing the firefighter with the hose.

Lokey, with Capt. Hunt at his side, grabs the nozzle of the one-inch hose and drags it into the burning apartment. Firefighters from the ladder truck, toting fans and axes, follow. Outside, Lawrence Smith, shirtless and shoeless in the 25-degree night, stands open-mouthed, watching the show. "Look at those flames," he says finally, apparently talking to himself as heat from the fire knocks out the last remaining bedroom window. "That's my apartment burning up." Near him, an elderly woman clutching the folds of a pink bathrobe and wearing a dish cloth on her head is screaming: "Oh my God, there are little children in Apartment 203." That's the apartment immediately above the burning bedroom.

Lokey, meantime, is in the blazing apartment. Halfway across the living room, smoke becomes too dense for Lokey to see anything. He crouches, turns on the firehose nozzle and moves toward the flaming bedroom. Breathing through his full-face oxygen mask, he kicks open the bedroom door where the temperature has built up to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Searing heat punches past him into the living room and melts the lacquer off a painting of the Lord's Supper. Lokey nearly steps into a flaming bed before seeing the fire. He steps back, douses the bed and the entire room. Seconds later the flames are out. The performance took less than 10 minutes.

The blaze, which a fire inspector says was caused by careless smoking, destroyed the bedroom, turning it to black rubble. The apartment reeks with the putrid smell of polyvinylchloride, a plastic used to make clothing, furniture and appliances. Smoke ruined nearly everything in the apartment. But no one was hurt. The fire didn't spread to the apartment above.

Outside, the firefighters of Engine 25 and Truck 8 are draining and packing up 400 feet of hose. Satisfied to have caught a decent fire, they are horsing around in the street like a high school basketball team after a big win.

Then, over the truck radio, the dispatcher announces another box alarm, flames coming out of an apartment building, 157 Danbury St. SW, just three blocks away. Engine 25 can't leave because of the hose on the ground, but the five firefighters who ride the ladder truck go.

At that fire -- a similarly intense, damaging but shortlived blaze -- Leonard West, who had 400 pounds of plaster fall on his head in December, slips on wet concrete and bruises his ribs.

At 3 a.m., Platoon 3 has been on duty for nearly 12 hours. After answering a minor medical call and a false alarm, the 11th and 12th runs of the night, everyone goes upstairs to bed except the firefighter on watch duty and Leonard West. His ribs hurt.

At 6:27, that sour-sounding beep and drone of the dispatcher destory the sleeping calm. A box alarm at a highrise on the 2600 block of Martin Luther King Avenue -- Engine 25 and Truck 8 respond. Lights flash on in the bunk room and bells ring. Firefighters leap from bed fully clothed, pull on boots and stumble to the brass poles. No one says a word. This is the 13th call of the night. In 15 seconds, the fire engines are out the door, racing through the windy, bitterly cold morning. It's a ghastly, inhuman way to wake up, like being dumped out of bed into a tub of ice water.

During such dashes out the firehouse door, pulse rates jump from 75 to 150 beats a minute, according to studies of Los Angeles firefighters.

There are no heart attacks this morning. There's no raging fire either, only a smoldering pillow. By 7 a.m., the day shift is in the firehouse, and the night shift limps home.

Last day. Just eight and one-half hours after going home, Platoon 3 is back. No one looks rested and, mercifully, the night is slow -- that is, for a Saturday night. Only five calls, including another heroin overdose, one of dozens in the city over the weekend. "There's some wild dope in town. It's knocking everyone on their butts," explains a paramedic, as he injects Narcan into an overdose victim attended by Engine 25.

At 3 a.m., with nearly everyone asleep, lights flare and bells clang in the bunk room. Twenty painful seconds later, everyone's out into the 20-degree night. There's a house fire at 2224 Chester St., SE. The house, located outside of Engine 25's neighborhood, was destroyed before the firehouse on Martin Luther King Avenue, even heard the alarm. But Engine 25 has been called in as part of a backup "task force." Tonight that means everyone stands around and shivers in the 20-mile-an hour wind.

Earlier in the evening, Richard Boone, the ladder-truck driver spending his last night in the firehouse, sat forlornly with his friends and said that transferring out of the little red firehouse was going to hurt.

"I tell ya, it is a pretty terrible feeling," Boone sighed. His friends told him to quit carping. They said life is better in the normal world.