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Year in and year out, Killingworth faces changes—in personnel, in schedules, in the state and national regulations we must observe, in funding levels, in emerging technologies, and occasional disasters. But some long-range trends will present major challenges that we need to start thinking about. A major example is our emergency services.
Our first responders—the fire and ambulance companies—are volunteers. We have been incredibly fortunate in this regard. Both firefighters and emergency medical responders give hundreds of hours to the town each year, not only showing up at emergencies that can happen at any hour but also attending dozens of hours of initial and ongoing training. That dedication and training are evident in the professional-level expertise our first responders demonstrate.
The town provides tax abatements—currently up to $1,000 per year—and a life insurance policy to active members, and a small retirement benefit to long-time members. These benefits, which qualify more as honorariums than compensation, currently cost the town about $130,000 per year.
We also invest heavily in equipping the Killingworth Volunteer Fire Company (KVFC)—about $1.3 million over the past five years—as well as providing the stations themselves. KVFC adds to this with its own fundraising (it is a nonprofit in its own right). We have begun looking at renovating Fire Station 1, next to Town Hall, to accommodate up-to-date equipment and staffing needs.
The Killingworth Ambulance Association (KAA) has some income from insurance reimbursements; the town provides the land for KAA’s headquarters, but the association has been able to cover its own budget and, in fact, has donated equipment and programs to the town.
Today, however, finding volunteers to staff these services is an increasingly difficult. Our population is aging. Most families now have two adults employed outside the home, and many residents did not grow up in families that were engaged with the KVFC or the KAA, and so they are not familiar with these organizations and their traditions. Training, screening, and testing requirements are becoming more stringent. Fewer people work in town, where they might be available during the day. As former Killingworth fire chief and selectman Fred Dudek says, people no longer work the farms and drop their pitchforks to respond to calls.
We are not alone in this challenge. Towns throughout our region and the state are working harder than ever to fill the ranks of their volunteer emergency services.
The cost of full-time professional departments would be higher by orders of magnitude. Part-time or regional professional staffing are a possibility that will require serious planning. We need to figure out how we can continue to ensure high-level, effective emergency response while preserving—not replacing—our current institutions. And we need to start working on this now, before we reach have to address the situation as a crisis.
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