In their neon safety vests accented with glow-in-the-dark strips, they are the unsung volunteers standing in the middle of an intersection when a fire burns, a car accident blocks the way, or a parade passes by.
Known as “fire police” — not quite firefighters, not quite police officers — they have a mission all their own. They control traffic and crowds, enabling firefighters and police to do their jobs without worrying about troublesome curiosity-seekers trying to get a closer look.
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This year, three area fire police officers are each celebrating 50-plus years on the street. Jean Sullivan, membership secretary of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Police Association, discovered their achievement and helped arrange ceremonies and citations in June honoring them for their public service.
"How many people do you know who volunteer and stick with it — for 50 years?” Sullivan said.
Daniel P. Wright
The emergency call that Daniel Wright, of Pennsburg, will never forget came in April 1994 when 119-year-old Kriebel Hall, on the campus the Perkiomen School, erupted in a 12-alarm blaze, unleashing billowing black smoke that was visible for miles. The boarding and day school had a student enrollment of about 200.
As a fire police officer for the Pennsburg Fire Company, Wright supervised communication with the 30 companies that responded. More than 200 firefighters rushed to the scene, a dozen of whom wound up hospitalized. Hundreds of residents descended on the campus to watch the fire burn.
Pennsburg’s fire police kept the crowds at bay and the traffic flowing safely, but it’s never easy.
“People have told me, ‘I don’t have to listen to you. You’re a nobody,’ ” said Wright, 79.
But, he added, fire police must stay calm because “getting nasty is the worse thing you can do. You just bite your tongue and be as nice as you can.”
Born in Allentown, Wright worked as a printer for the Town and Country newspaper that covers the Upper Perkiomen Valley, and as manager at a battery warehouse in Quakertown. He retired in 2017. He and his wife Betty have been married for 60 years and have four children.
In 2016, Wright retired from the fire police after 53 years, during which he served mostly as a fire police lieutenant. At first, he missed his post on the street. Now, not so much.
“I don’t miss going out in the pouring rain, in the snow and freezing cold, standing on frozen macadam, losing sleep, getting up at 1 a.m. to be on a call until 5 a.m. and then go home, take a shower and go to work,” he said.
Wright may not miss that, but Pennsburg officials miss his contribution to public service. In June, they surprised him by honoring him at a borough council meeting.
“I had no idea,” Wright said, “I was thrilled.”
William “Buck” Amey
For decades, William “Buck” Amey was that guy at the Wissahickon Fire Company who could talk about fires because he was a firefighter, traveling to the blaze because he drove the truck, administering first aid because he was a certified EMT, and supervising the ambulance service because he was a crew chief.
And if you happened to have a question about local history, he’d be the one to ask. Amey is also the librarian for the Historical Society of Fort Washington.
Amey, 82, of Upper Dublin, joined the fire company in 1958, first as a firefighter. He added fire police to his duties 11 years later and was named captain of the unit in 1991. Today, he is semiretired and mostly off the street.
For most of his time at the fire company, Amey worked for SPS Technologies in Jenkintown as machinist and engineer. After 44 years, he left that job to work at Anton B. Urban Funeral Home, picking up bodies when undertakers got news of a death. He retired two years ago. He and his wife, Joan, have been married 62 years and have a son Bill, 54. The couple’s son Scott passed away in 2014 at 46.
Amey says one of his toughest fire police calls was the night in the mid-1970s when three people died in a car accident on Bethlehem Pike in Lower Gwynedd. One of the victims was decapitated.
“You go home and you just can’t erase it. You can’t go back to sleep,” Amey said. Six years ago, he decided to cut back, and now helps out when the company needs a hand.
“When you get to be our age, there’s a good chance of not getting out of the way when these cars are coming to the scene,” Amey said. "It just doesn’t work out for old people.”
Most of the time, the captain of Pennsburg’s fire police gets along with the engine company chief, but when he doesn’t, it’s a matter of father vs. son.
Larry Seip, who’s led the Montgomery County borough’s fire police for 50 years, reports to his son, Scott, 54, who was 4 years old when his dad joined the fire police.
“We have our spats,” said Larry Seip, 76, of Red Hill. (Indeed, Scott recalls the time he ordered his father to block traffic, but his dad opened one lane anyway.) Eventually, says the elder Seip, “We iron it all out.”
He describes the Pennsburg company as a “big family” firehouse that resolves its disagreements. But bickering and fighting sometimes surface in other fire companies when the pressure of dangerous public service strains relationships and frays nerves.
“Somebody will say, ‘You should have done this or that’ and guys get mad and walk out and then the next thing you know, Facebook is goings nuts,” Seip said. ”But I don’t have Facebook. I’ve still got a flip phone.”
Born in Allentown, Seip worked as a truck driver and machinist for Knoll International, a furniture company in East Greenville until he retired in 2005. He and his wife, Dolores, have been married for 58 years.
Seip joined the Pennsburg fire police in 1967 and was named captain a year later. He’s worked carnivals, accidents, and even a few hostage situations, inspiring his two sons to follow their dad’s example and keep public service in the family. Son Jeffrey, 52, served as firefighter until back problems forced him to retire, but he sometimes assists on fire police assignments.
Larry Seip isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be serving as a fire police officer. In late June, he was scheduled to undergo heart surgery. He’ll be recovering for a while, then “we’ll see” about returning, he said, but quickly added, “I’m a tough old man.”