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'Thankless job' doesn't deter auxiliary officers

| Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009

When Robert Dunkle was growing up in Oakmont, he didn't have to look far to find a role model for community service.

Dunkle's father, Daniel Dunkle Sr., was a member of the borough's auxiliary police unit for more than 20 years. Today, Robert Dunkle is captain of the 10-man volunteer unit, formed in 1942 to supplement the police department.

"They relieve us so we can do our professional duties," said Oakmont police Chief David DiSanti, who is seeking to expand the unit. "They are valuable. They are our eyes and ears."

Auxiliary police, who fall under the authority of a police department, and fire police, who are under the command of fire departments, include volunteers who assist in duties such as traffic control and crowd control during parades, accidents, fires and other emergencies.

"It is the most thankless job in the world," said Gary Borsuk, chief of West Deer Volunteer Fire Department No. 1, Station 288.

The three members of the fire police unit are involved in about 180 of the 240 calls the fire department answers each year.

"They are out there in all types of weather. After we are done, sometimes they're still directing traffic," Borsuk said.

The origin of the fire police dates to the late 1800s, according to the Pennsylvania Fire Police Association. It wasn't until 1941, however, that the state Legislature passed a law officially creating the fire police. Auxiliary police officers are granted their power under the Civil Defense Act of 1950.

Members of the squads, who are required to receive basic training and yearly updates, can detain people but cannot arrest them. Specialized training in topics such as hazardous materials handling and arson investigation are offered.

"They are not to engage anyone," DiSanti said. "They keep in touch with our officers with radios."

They do not pursue people.

"We cannot get in our vehicles and chase cars," Dunkle said. "We go to where we are assigned and put the blue light on the car."

They wear clothing that is distinctly different from the police uniform or fire gear. Their badges distinguish them as auxiliary or fire police. Their municipalities typically provide money for uniforms and equipment.

Dale Valletto, captain of the West Deer Fire Police for the past 10 years, said though the work is difficult at times, he stays with it because he takes pride in what he does.

"Sometimes it can be like a job even though it's volunteer," said Valletto, 52, of West Deer, who has been a volunteer firefighter.

Valletto said the work can be dangerous -- he has nearly been hit while directing traffic.

"If I wouldn't have jumped over the guard rail, I would have been hit," he said. "The biggest problem is you are in the middle of the road directing traffic and people are paying more attention to the red lights flashing than to you."

Dunkle said the value of Oakmont's volunteer forces was particularly evident in September 2004 when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan swept through the region.

Auxiliary officers were out "around the clock," directing traffic and directing people to shelters, he said.

"(Prior to the flood) we had drills and mock disasters with the fire department. Knowing our part in that bigger disaster and keeping everything moving and keeping the property and public safe (was rewarding)."

DiSanti and Dunkle said conduct by auxiliary officers -- on and off duty -- has to be above reproach.

"We make it pretty clear there is a certain expectation of conduct of someone who is an auxiliary police officer if they are working or active in the community," Dunkle said.

"We are fortunate the guys we have understand that," Dunkle said. "They are not in it for the glory. They aren't in it for the power."

Additional Information:

Volunteers sought

Oakmont police Chief David DiSanti is seeking volunteers for the borough's volunteer auxiliary police unit. To obtain an application, call DiSanti at 412-826-1578. Candidates are screened and background checks conducted. Applicants must be at least 21 and have high school diplomas. They must pass physical examinations.

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