MAYVILLE - They are typically the first ones at the scene and the last ones to leave. They play an important role during major accidents, fires and weather emergencies, and have years of experience.
They're also some of the most unsung heroes in the fire service world.
Fire police can found at most incidents these days, directing traffic and ensuring safety sometimes miles away from fellow firefighters and emergency personnel.
Rick Pearson of the Kiantone Fire Department stands guard in January. Chautauqua County’s 42 fire departments have hundreds of fire police officers in addition to the county fire police team.
P-J photos by Eric Tichy
"Absolutely they are important for the operation," said Bob Frank, Chautauqua County deputy fire coordinator in charge of the county fire police team. "Many are here because they want to be a part of the fire services and help out during large incidents and assist with manpower."
The decade-old fire police team, with enrollment more than 100 strong, will respond 30 to 40 times a year to a wide array of emergencies throughout Chautauqua County. The County Legislature in 2009 recognized the group, allowing its members to receive insurance coverage.
Having the county fire police team ensures fire companies dealing with a large-scale incident or with a lack of support have sufficient manpower. Frank said members are divided into north and south divisions, both of which have access to emergency vehicles for responding.
"These guys are usually the last ones to leave an accident or fire," Frank said. "We have great captains that do a great job of rotating people to get them warm and back out there."
Fire police have duties in and around the fire department. Aside from securing equipment and personnel, they also perform traffic and crowd control. Many fire police are long-time firefighters who wish to remain active in the department.
"You have to have eyes in the back of your head when you're out there," said David Burlingame, captain of the north county fire police team and member of the East Dunkirk Fire Department. "I like to have two guys when out there: one to look in one direction and another to look in the other. There is a lot to do.
"We're not just guys out there telling people which way to drive."
Burlingame has been with the East Dunkirk Fire Department for 28 years, many of the those years as its fire police captain, and member of the county squad for a decade. You can drop his name to a firefighter anywhere in the county and chances are they know who he is. The American Legion even recognized him last year, naming him "Fireman of the Year."
So why fire police?
"I wanted to help out, and I wanted to be a firefighter," Burlingame said. "But with my back I got involved with the fire police. I've been doing it ever since."
The long-time volunteer said fire police are starting to get the respect they deserve in the community. "Over the last five years, we're finally getting the recognition," Burlingame said, noting a lot of that has to do with new laws passed to ensure firefighter safety.
New York state's Move Over Law, modified this year, requires motorists to use due care when approaching emergency vehicles and personnel. Drivers are required to slow down and move to an adjacent lane.
"The law has helped, but it's not perfect," Burlingame said. "We simply need people to slow down when they come across an emergency scene."
As for fond memories while standing guard? Well, there are plenty, the Dunkirk resident said, but none more memorable than trying to give directions to a driver who lives around the corner from an accident.
"They are elderly drivers and they have lived here their whole lives," Burlingame said, "and they still need directions on how to get back to their home."