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What's Up Magazine

Life Ring for Islanders

Aug 17, 2012 07:34PM ● By Anonymous

The Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department’s longest-serving active member, Link George, has held numerous leadership positions within the organization, including three terms as president. From the beginning, George knew he’d found a second home. “I was 24. The night I joined was the first time I ever went there. Everybody knew everybody.” Many members were lifelong friends. “It’s been 45 years. I wouldn’t have been here this long if it weren’t for the camaraderie.” George grins, adding, “And it sure hasn’t all been pretty.”

Origins and Characters

Early in 1947, after a string of worrisome winter fires, Kent Islanders were roused to action. A core group spearheaded efforts to establish a fire company, and the idea was embraced by the population with enthusiasm. Leadership was elected, land donated, and a building committee recruited. The Ladies Auxiliary proved to be fundraising champs from the get-go. A new fire engine was ordered and politically connected overtures went out in an effort to acquire an ambulance, which according to several excited newspaper reports would be Queen Anne’s County’s first.

That ambulance, a 1941 Buick, was donated by the Mayor and City of Baltimore at the behest of Catherine Kirwan, the determined granddaughter of retired state senator, and prominent Islander James Kirwan. The inaugural ambulance call came in April 1948 and was in response to an automobile accident. The first fire alarm rang out that November.

In the Eastern Shore tradition, the KIVFD has never been short of characters with character. One of the most beloved was Duke Moore, chief from 1965–1977. Moore was the brass coupling between the organization’s founders and its next generation. “He was an inspiration to everybody. I doubt there was a family on the island whose lives weren’t touched by him,” says Kitty Duncan, Ladies Auxiliary member since 1970. She’s blunt. “You couldn’t tell the story of the fire department without Duke. Duke Moore was the fire department,” says Duncan.

William Dudley “Duke” Moore grew up in Centreville but married Jackie Clark from a large, inseparable Kent Island clan devoted to their volunteer fire department. Moore joined the KIVFD in 1955 and rose through the ranks. Running the fire department for a dozen years, Moore was an unquestioned authority. Tracy Schulz, (chief 1992–1997 and again 2000–2006) says, “Duke treated the firehouse like it was his own, and he expected others to treat it like it was his.”

One of Duke’s signature moves was, no matter what, to always be first to respond. Those who knew him still wonder out loud if he always slept in his clothes.

All for One

Life Ring for Islanders

A volunteer fire department changes over time but its essence remains constant. Belonging to a volunteer fire department is belonging to a family. There are members stern and serious, and others who can always be counted on for comic relief. There are obligations and responsibilities, not to mention hurt feelings and petty disagreements, but there are also gleaming satisfactions and rewards. Members laugh, argue, and mourn together. They grow as individuals and as a group.

From the heyday of the Eastern Shore packing house industry and the construction of the Bay Bridge, through eye-popping population growth and the expansion of tourism, members and supporters of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department have lived through it all like family.

Though there were such historic events as the Matapeake Ferry terminal fire, the giant blaze that destroyed the landmark Love Point Hotel, and a Bay Bridge accident that caught everyone’s attention with a truck driver hanging suspended over the guardrail in the cab of his 18-wheeler while authorities decided how best to accomplish his rescue, nothing touched the KIVFD as personally as the 2001 loss of Dougie Thomas, the lone member to ever lose his life as a result of performing his duties.

Thomas’ grandfather was a KIVFD founder, and Thomas joined as soon as age requirements allowed. For more than 25 years, he was a leading responder and filled various seats of command. On the Sunday morning after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Thomas was responding to a reported boat fire when the fire engine he was driving struck a utility pole and overturned. A stubborn man, Thomas defied expectations and struggled to hold on to life for almost two years.

Department historian and longtime Ladies Auxiliary leader Dolores Timms says, “It brings home what the fireman’s lot in life is. Every time you go out it’s dangerous. We take life for granted. When my monitor goes off I ask the Lord to take care of whoever answers the call.”

Answering the Call

Life Ring for Islanders

Here’s a reality check for aspiring firefighters and medical emergency response personnel attracted to the flashing lights and alluring cache of being a lifesaver: A rookie is going to need 200 hours of training to get started. The initial step is in-house instruction. Recruits are introduced to the operation by experienced members and must take a basic firefighting class. It helps to discover early if a new volunteer is cut out for the job.

“Members are far better trained now,” Dolores Timms says. “Back then you just got on the back of a fire truck, and you went and put out a fire. Now firefighters all have to be certified, they take classes upon classes. Time commitment alone weeds out those who join for the wrong reasons.”

If risky response work isn’t for you, there are still many ways a volunteer can help. Every fire department relies on their “other than firemen” personnel. From insurance billing and computer tech support to apparatus maintenance and fundraising, there is much activity that goes on behind the scenes that makes the arrival of the fire truck or ambulance possible.

Training and support needs aren’t the only things that have changed. In the company’s nascent years,—weeks could go by without an alarm sounding. In 2011, however, the KIVFD responded to 1,596 calls, the most of any fire department in Queen Anne’s County. Seventy-one percent of those calls were for EMS services, which reflect a national trend towards fewer fire related emergencies. On the other hand, such specialized training as dealing with hazardous materials and blood borne pathogens has become more integral to a firefighter’s or rescue personnel’s knowledge base.

“It isn’t as fun anymore,” laments Doug Leatherman, a member for more than two decades, “but it’s still gratifying when you see the look on a person’s face when you’ve saved someone they love.”

And in the world of Eastern Shore emergency volunteers, the person doing the saving might be someone you love as well.