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County Hall Corner: The Other Police Force

Ever notice how drivers automatically slow down when they see a police car, even if it is on the opposite side of the road? Or how we barely notice people who walk by us on the street, but when a police officer walks by, we become very aware that they are there. Engaging a police officer, even in a very neutral way, has a sobering impact on the average law-abiding citizen. Yet, there is another police force that does not get that response. They also put their lives on the line; unfortunately, some have even died in that line of duty. They are known as Fire Police Officers.

This was brought to our attention locally with the unfortunate incident that occurred during the annual Lycoming County 9/11 Memorial Coalition Freedom Ride. South Williamsport fire policeman William Howlett was struck by a motorcycle and was hospitalized with serious injuries as a result.

Truth be told, it is more remarkable that this does not happen more often than it does. Fire Police are literally on the front lines of emergencies and other events. Their duties are required to provide traffic and safety control at fires, car crashes, and other fire department operations, which would include protecting both firefighters and emergency medical service personnel as well as bystanders and crowd control.

What almost no one knows is that they really are Fire Police, which is not an honorary distinction but an actual position. Pennsylvania Title 35 Section 7435 states, “Specific powers — when confirmed and sworn and displaying a badge of authority, special fire police shall have full power to regulate traffic and keep crowds under control at or in the vicinity of any fire on which their companies are in attendance and to exercise other police powers necessary to facilitate and prevent interference with the work of firemen in extinguishing fires. They shall also have the POLICE POWERS (my emphasis) necessary to perform their duties when functioning as special fire police at any function, event, or parade conducted by and under the auspices of a volunteer fire company or another event, function or parade conducted by an organization other than a volunteer fire company, provided that the request to perform these duties is made by the governing body of the city, borough, town, township or home rule municipality in which the event will be conducted, or when accidents, floods or any other emergencies require performance of traffic-control and crowd-control duties.”

I know something about this personally, as I am an official Fire Policeman for the Clinton Township Fire Company. I took Fire Police I and II training (32 hours of in-class instruction) and was sworn in by the Clinton Township Supervisors in 2017. Like my fellow members, I have a badge on my fluorescent vest identifying me as an official officer, which I wear when I am on an emergency scene.

To give just one example of my own experience, I was shopping at Surplus Outlet right off Route 15 and 54, and as I was going to my car in the parking lot, my phone app notified me that a severe auto accident had taken place about a mile from my location. I quickly drove to the scene, put on my vest, and presented myself to the state trooper, who had also just arrived. He positioned me about a quarter-mile up the road and told me to redirect traffic as the accident involved two cars, one of which had flipped over sideways. Almost at the same time, the ambulance crew from my station arrived to deal with the injured drivers.

It was not a heavily used road, but there was traffic, and nobody was obeying the speed limit. I had to ensure that the drivers were stopped and, at the same time, avoid getting run over in the process. Once stopped, I had to explain to each and every driver the detour route that they must take, and while most were understanding, there were several who wanted me to get a full piece of their mind before following my directions. This went on for over two hours before the road was cleared enough for regular travel again.

There are many issues that arise beyond fires and auto accidents that require fire police. They include downed wires, flooded roads or bridges, crime scenes, crowd control at events, and perhaps most of all, protecting the firefighters, EMTs, police officers, and other emergency responders in every way possible so they can do their jobs.

We pray for your full recovery, Mr. Howlett, and thank you for your service to your community for so many years. May this terrible accident have some good come out of it — a reminder to all to respect and obey the directions of our local Fire Police officers.