ELLICOTT CITY -- Families demonstrate their togetherness in a variety of ways. Some go to the movies, others go camping or participate in a favorite sport.

In the Klein household here, firefighting and emergency rescue service are the ties that bind the family together. For at least three generations, one or more members of the Klein clan has risked limb and sacrificed time for the Howard County volunteer fire department.

"It's something that runs in the blood -- a desire to help someone," said John J. Klein, chief of the 2nd fire district, which includes Ellicott City and the Bethany fire station on Rte. 99. He commands about 50 volunteers and 26 county-paid career firefighters in the stations.

A few decades ago, it was not uncommon for whole families in rural and suburban areas around Washington to serve in volunteer firefighting programs.

But that tradition is dying. With the growth in the suburbs, many jurisdictions have moved to professional firefighters. And faced with a plethora of choices, today's teen-agers often look elsewhere for social contacts and career options.

Not so with the Klein family. John Klein, 43, has been a volunteer firefighter in Ellicott City for 28 years. He learned the avocation from his father Charles, who served for 40 years. His 79-year-old mother, Mary Klein, is still active in the Ladies Auxiliary.

Of the seven Klein siblings, all except one brother have kept up the family tradition in Howard County. Two of Klein's brothers are retired volunteer firefighters, while a sister is the secretary of the board of directors.

Both of John Klein's children, John Jr., 16, and Kimberly, 20, are volunteer firefighters. His wife Carolyn is a paramedic.

During his long career, John Klein has held almost every job in the volunteer fire department, from manning the hoses to repairing the ambulance.

Along the way, Klein has earned the respect of his troops, who credit him with firm, no-nonsense leadership during the November 1984 Main Street fire in Ellicott City.

Nearly 100 career and volunteer firefighters battled the all-night blaze, which destroyed six buildings in the historic downtown area.

But what makes Klein proud is that no one -- civilian or firefighter -- was injured in the fire.

"When you're working a fire like that and come out of it without injuries, that's a success," Klein said. "You can replace property, but you can't replace a life."

Sitting in his office at the Ellicott City fire station, Klein, a tall man with a small paunch, is reluctant to talk about himself or his achievements.

Several plaques line the paneled wall of his large office. Carolyn Klein said the couple's house on Rogers Avenue is full of citations and trophies won by her husband, who last year was named outstanding volunteer firefighter by the Howard County Council.

Next Thursday, Klein will add another plaque to his collection when he is honored as the volunteer firefighter of the year by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. John B. Blum will be saluted as career firefighter of the year at the luncheon ceremony.

Firefighting started out as a hobby for Klein, a desire to follow in his father's footsteps. "My dad was in it, my brothers were in it, so I got into it too," he said.

As soon as he turned 15, the minimum age for recruits, Klein applied to be a volunteer firefighter. "Back in 1959, there wasn't that much to do in Ellicott City," Klein said. "There was only one movie house in town."

Carolyn Klein, after numerous midnight alarms and early morning ambulance rides, decided five years ago to become a volunteer firefighter.

"I would be standing here {at the firehouse} when the alarm went off," she said. "I decided, 'If you can't lick 'em, join 'em.' I tried it and love it.' "

An admitted workaholic, John Klein's dedication to volunteer firefighting and running the family's towing and truck repair business, West End Services Inc., almost cost him his life.

In April 1984, he was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore suffering from chest pains and angina attacks. Doctors immediately decided to perform heart bypass surgery.

But Klein was not out of action for long. Six days after surgery, he was back in his office. Two months later, he was elected 2nd district fire chief.

Then in November, Klein was the commander at the scene in Ellicott City at one of Howard County's major fires.

Carolyn Klein said she and her husband were preparing to retire for the evening when the bedside beeper sounded. The couple grabbed their firefighting gear and headed downtown in the chief's white Jeep.

For the next 24 hours, Klein was the man in charge, directing the assault on the billowing flames and smoke, ordering more equipment and sending in relievers for battle-weary firefighters.

Being on the hot seat didn't seem to faze Klein. "I didn't mind it at all," he said. "I had peers who worked hand-in-hand. There were no problems."

An avid golfer with a self-described "terrible" game, Klein is serving his second two-year term as district fire chief. He's unsure of how long he'll stay in the top post.

When the time comes to quit, Klein said he'll step aside for the next generation to carry on the family tradition.

"I know I'm not indispensable," Klein said. "It's not a lifetime job, but I enjoy helping people. That's what it's all about."