The Man Who Taught Kids to Stop, Drop, and Roll

The name “William Seals Pierce” might not mean anything to you. But if you grew up in Fort Worth in the 1950s or 1960s, the name “Fireman Bill” means something to you.

For fifteen years Fort Worth fireman Bill Pierce, as “Fireman Bill,” presented a program on fire safety in elementary and junior high public schools and parochial schools.

Fireman Bill also visited churches. In 1957 children of Riverside Methodist Church Vacation Bible School donated $5 to the Star-Telegram Milk and Ice Fund in Fireman Bill’s name after his safety presentation.

To us school children, getting out of class for thirty whole minutes to attend an assembly in the auditorium was always welcome, and seeing Fireman Bill was special.

Fireman Bill didn’t preach to us, he didn’t talk down to us, he didn’t recite dry lists of safety rules. He was sneakier than that: He taught us while entertaining us.

“You’ve got to make kids laugh if you’re going to make them pay attention,” he said.

Among his “assistants” during his presentations were Greasy Roach, Mr. Stupid Careless, and Dirty Doodle Bug.

His props included electrical equipment, an ironing board, a pan of grease, and a doll. He used the same doll for fifteen years, outfitting her after each presentation with a new skirt of crepe paper.

He showed us how to prevent fires and how to deal with fires—the kind that children are likely to encounter. He showed us how to be safe with a clothes iron. He set fire to the pan of grease and showed us how to snuff out the fire. He set fire to the doll’s skirt and waved her about. All eyes in the auditorium were on those yellow flames.

We were captivated, entertained, and, unwittingly, educated.

Look at that man up there! He’s playing with fire!

Yes, a grownup was playing with fire. And getting away with it. Not one teacher in the auditorium made Fireman Bill go stand in the corner or told him to write “I will not set fire to my doll” on the blackboard or sent him to the principal’s office. In fact, the fire department—an organization openly comprised of grownups—paid Fireman Bill to play with fire, let him leave the firehouse and travel all over town, and gave him a spiffy blue uniform to do it in.

As we kids sat in that darkened auditorium, mesmerized, watching a grown man get paid to play with fire, I think many of us had an epiphany: “When I grow up, I wanna be a grownup.”

William Seals Pierce was born in Denton in 1903.

About 1926 he moved to Fort Worth, where he got a job as an operator for the Northern Texas Traction Company, which operated the interurban and streetcar lines.

But by 1928 he was Private William S. Pierce of the Fort Worth Fire Department. He would rise to the rank of captain.

In 1929 as he and other firemen fought a house fire, Pierce discovered the charred body of a child. He never forgot the sight. Pierce began thinking of a program of fire safety aimed at children.

In 1951 he got his chance: The fire department began a fire safety program for public schools. Pierce was given the assignment.

“I just happen to be a lucky guy who was able to make his hobby his life’s work,” he said later. “It’s the most gratifying work a man can do, even though the failures are more evident than the successes.”

But Pierce was being modest.

In 1962 Elston Brooks wrote that parents and teachers credited Fireman Bill with preventing fourteen deaths. The fire department would eventually raise that number to eighteen. And on at least one hundred occasions a fire that could have caused heavy damage or death was prevented because of Fireman Bill’s safety lessons.

For example, in 1962 a sixth-grader at West Van Zandt Elementary School backed into an incinerator (remember when school janitors burned trash in incinerators?). His clothes caught fire. But he didn’t panic. He stopped, dropped, and rolled, extinguishing the fire.

“That’s the way Fireman Bill said to do it,” the boy later said.

On another occasion a boy brushed against a home space heater and set his clothes on fire. He wrapped himself in a blanket to extinguish the fire. Then he told his mother that he had burned himself and was going to lie down and keep still. “If I faint, raise my feet above my head,” he told her.

All as taught by Fireman Bill.

Fireman Bill’s mission was not confined to the school auditorium. He visited young fire victims in the hospital not only to boost their morale but also to ask them the details of their accident so he’d know how to tailor his presentations most effectively.

For his Fireman Bill work, in 1963 William Seals Pierce was honored as Fort Worth fireman of the year.

Elston Brooks wrote that Fireman Bill had given his safety presentation to seventeen schools in a single day during Public Schools Week in 1966. It would be Pierce’s last year as Fireman Bill.

William Seals Pierce died in 1967 at age sixty-three.

Fireman Bill was honored locally.

And with a resolution in the House of Representatives in the Texas legislature.

William Seals Pierce is buried in the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Denton.

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