Consider the constants in Noble Smith's firefighting life when he started as an Alexandria volunteer. Horses. They pulled the fire wagons. Steam engines. They powered the fire hoses. A ringing bell. The signal that told him it was time to do what he loved more than anything else.

As Alexandria's firefighters get ready for the next century, they took some time yesterday to look back toward the start of this one, when fighting fire was a more uneven battle against a force of nature. Other fire services might rely on old photos and records for such a nostalgia trip. Alexandria decided it would honor Smith, who at 99 is their oldest living volunteer firefighter.

"We don't want to forget our past," said James Gower, Alexandria's deputy fire chief, who officiated the ceremony attended by a dozen firefighters and family members and held at a nursing home where Smith is recovering from pneumonia. "We have great respect for the men who long before us fought fires with much less sophisticated equipment. It's a link to the last century."

Smith, a welder by trade known as "Smithy" in firehouses for over three quarters of a century, started on April 1, 1919. That's the day his mother walked him over to Firehouse No. 4 on St. Asaph Street, where Portner's restaurant now stands, and gave her permission for him to join. He was 18.

Smith was following his father's example, who a dozen years earlier became the steam engine operator for that same fire company. As a boy, whenever the younger Smith would see smoke rising in the distance, he'd leave school and watch his father work the blaze.

"I liked everything about it--the excitement," said Smith, who didn't do much of the talking yesterday.

In many ways, putting out fires during Smith's early career was a more dangerous endeavor than it is now. Even decades after he joined, there wasn't enough protective equipment for the city's firefighters. Only the first to arrive at a fire received coats, hats or boots, and often they didn't fit.

Charles Sampson, who was honored yesterday for over 38 years of paid fire service, called Smith a tough "smoke eater" who "never backed away from a fire." Some would hesitate getting close to a blaze, Sampson said, but Smith would go right into a burning building, even in the days before firefighters had oxygen masks.

"He hated to back off," Sampson said. "Even when he'd get smoke in his lungs, he's get some fresh air and then he got back in as soon as he could."

Yesterday the group talked of how Smith was still working the big blazes well into the 1960s. But Smith's influence and connection with the fire service continued beyond that time.

Every Sunday morning in the decades after that, fire houses around Alexandria would await his arrival with the "puff dough," which the firefighters would fry in lard as a staple of a traditional firehouse breakfast.

Smith still is on the force's roster as a volunteer even though during the last several years his health hasn't permitted as many visits to firehouses as he'd like, Nellie Smith said.

There are still about 10 active volunteers who join the Alexandria force's 148 paid firefighters on the frontline jobs. "He tells me that if he was able," Nellie Smith said of her husband, "he'd be out there now" as one of them.

CAPTION: A dozen firefighters and family members gathered to honor Noble Smith--and present him with a plaque--at his nursing home, where he is recovering from pneumonia.

CAPTION: Nellie Smith hugs her husband after the ceremony. She said he still is on the force's roster as a volunteer firefighter.