Filling the gap

By on April 8, 2015

With Title 35, Chapter 74 subchapter D of the Pennsylvania Health and Welfare Act, the Pennsylvania Legislature created an entity called the “Special Fire Police.”
And why, you may ask, are you bothering me with this trivia? Well for one, these often unnoticed men and women are saving you a pot of money while protecting your community. In 50 years the Ephrata police have gone from five officers to 29. The scope of their duties and subsequent training requirements have increased at least five-fold. Who in the mid-20th Century would have considered a full-time officer in the schools? The terms bomb squad, SWAT team and drug enforcement were unheard until the late 1970’s. The cost of equipping an officer is beyond anything 1950’s Ephrata Police Chief Shrom could have imagined. Our communities have expanded both in territory and population. The problem is complicated by citizen cries for lower budgets, less tax and more security services. Filling the gap are the members of our volunteer fire companies who train and work as fire police.
Returning from Annville one evening going east on Main Street in Ephrata, we saw five pieces of fire equipment on Main in front of our house. This does not induce a comfortable feeling. Main was blocked at Lake; and Sugar Alley, which parallels Main to the south, was also blocked. Fire police were stationed to assure the firefighters could do their job without the danger and interference of traffic. When I stopped to ask, I was assured it was not my house and directed around the equipment. By handling traffic control, the fire police freed borough police to concentrate on keeping order on the scene and protecting adjoining property. Also, had borough officers been required to do traffic control there would have been no one on call for the rest of the community. I emphasize, volunteers are doing this job. They keep us safe as a duty; they only ask us to follow their directions courteously.
The Ephrata Fire Police were chartered on June 27, 1951 but the Pioneer Fire Company website assures us the force had been active since 1921. Among long-time veterans is Bill Peters, owner of W. E. Peters and Son, an electrical contractor. All fire police must be members of the local fire department. Bill is the oldest life member of the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company, and a fire policeman since 1984. When I talked with him, he held the rank of sergeant. Bill explained that the fire police, while a part of the fire company, meets separately. At the meetings, in addition to normal business, time is spent planning possible strategies for isolating areas where there might be a fire. This sounds easy but is more difficult than first perceived. Take for example the call to the 200 block of East Main. During the Ephrata Fair traffic is detoured on Lincoln Avenue &tstr; in this case that was impossible. It also had to be stopped at Spring Garden. How is the traffic on 322 to be detoured around the fire? It is the responsibility of the ranking officer at the scene to give the orders to members of his squad, and he only has minutes to make the decisions, thus the need for extensive planning. Bill has since retired.
Like Bill, Ralph Dissinger is a long-time member of the Ephrata Pioneer Fire Company. And like Bill and his fellow fire policemen, he is seen all around the community. If you are passing the Ephrata high, middle or Fulton elementary schools when the kids are coming or going, you will probably see Ralph there directing traffic. Please take notice of him. He has been hit by more than one passing mirror of a negligent driver. When doing this work he is employed by the Borough of Ephrata, but his training and introduction is from the fire police. Ralph took all of the required courses and is constantly updating his knowledge of law and procedure. It is a lot more than just standing out there in a safety suit. Ralph and all the other fire police are also called on to direct traffic around the Ephrata Fair and the other occasions when Main Street is closed for an activity. You will also see members of this force at sporting events and large gatherings at the park..
Among the veterans of Ephrata’s fire police is the man who is now the civilian in charge of the Ephrata Borough Police, Mayor Ralph Mowen. He joined the Pioneer Fire Company in 1969 and is currently a member of the fire police. In the 1970s, the borough Police were headed by Chief Wilwerth and things were different; the fire police rode in the cruiser with borough officers and they were armed. They did the bulk of the policing for the Ephrata Fair. Although they were supervised and required to qualify with their side arms, Mayor Mowen was much relieved when the state legislature disarmed the fire police. The fire police experience, in addition to his experience in the Air Force, gave Mayor Mowen a good background for his current duties.
In 1851 the New Ephrata Fire Brigade was formed. At that time, a tall skinny fellow without a beard, named Abraham Lincoln, was still a small time politician in Illinois. When the railroad came through and the town of Ephrata grew up around it, the village of New Ephrata became Lincoln and the fire brigade became the Lincoln Fire Company. Mike Carpenter has been a member of Lincoln since high school. As he got a little older, he shifted to the especially strong Lincoln Fire Police unit. Mike explains the extensive and ongoing training members receive. They go where the company goes to provide back up and traffic control. The Lincoln Fire Police sold their old “Paddy Wagon” squad truck and replace it with a rebuilt 1999 Ford Ambulance. This vehicle provides support for all fire police on a site.
Taking a detour or having to wait can be frustrating. The man or woman directing you, may not look like a normal officer. Please friends, have patience. Bill Peters has been hit by a car. Ralph Dissinger has been clipped by mirrors more times than he can count. And Mike Carpenter keeps a wary eye out for the driver who chooses to ignore his direction. The men and women of the fire police go out at any hour, in any weather, to keep you safe and allow regular officers and firefighters to do their job. When you see one of them blocking your way, you are permitted a course expletive or two, but direct them at the situation, not at the conscientious volunteer doing a job for you.

Phil Eisemann

Phil Eisemann

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