"Welcome Firemen," the sign says. "Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions. They are more easily handled than dumb mistakes."

To the staff of the University of Maryland's Fire and Rescue Institute, it's no joke.

For almost 50 years, the little-known school on the second floor of the College Park firehouse has been teaching volunteers how to fight fires without getting killed.

The institute has always operated on a shoestring, but things have been especially difficult in recent years.

The blackened structural fire training building tucked away behind the College Park Airport has been condemned. When the firemen turn on their hoses, the neighborhood tap water turns brown. Environmentalists have shut down the oil-burning system.

But by substituting ingenuity for money, the institute has gained an international reputation and has made Maryland a leader in volunteer training. Last year, the school handled more than 15,000 firefighters.

"We're talking about a discipline that's just exploded," said John Hoglund, the third-generation firefighter and institute director for seven years. "We're just swamped with requests for classes.

"Normally, in years past, we delivered 80 to 100 field classes. Last year it was 127, which exceeded our budget. This year we already have requests for 208."

The increased demand comes from suburban growth and the introduction of medical devices that require increasing sophistication from volunteer firefighters.

THe institute has 11 full-time and 94 part-time instructors. Its proposed budget for the next fiscal year is $1.2 million, 30 per cent more than the current allocation.

Most volunteer companies require their fire-fighters to take the institute's basic course. Hoglund hopes to develop five regional training centers around the state to handle the load.