Do not jeopardize public safety

Published 1:53 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Perhaps no one envies Kerry McDuffie’s job.

Ahoskie’s newly hired Town Manager has inherited a financial mess, which in advance of his arrival prompted one round of drastic cuts to the budget in order to make up for a $1 million-plus deficit in the unassigned Fund Balance.

Now, less than one month into a new budget year, comes the news that Ahoskie needs to cut another $475,000 in order to have the amount of cash flow at year’s end that the town should have.

Currently, McDuffie is studying two ways to save that amount of money. One is offering a three-month severance package to any town employee, with the exception of those in law enforcement, to leave their job. The idea there is to basically offer a voluntary reduction in force.

The other plan currently on the drawing board is to either reduce the number of the town’s paid firemen, or completely wipe that workforce clean and merge the Ahoskie Fire Department with the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department.

In my humble opinion, the scenario involving the two fire departments does not need to be considered.

Not only is Ahoskie’s name unique, but so is the fact that there are indeed two fire departments in this small town. They operate individually, meaning each has their own building, trucks/equipment, insurance policies, etc. Each department maintains the upkeep on their trucks and equipment; each pays for the turnout gear, air packs, radios, etc. for their firefighters.

The biggest difference between the two is that one set of firemen are paid – meaning they are on duty 24/7/365 at the town’s station, ready to respond immediately – while the rural guys are volunteers. The latter have to either leave their jobs during the day or rush from their homes at night, drive their personal vehicles to the rural station, retrieve their gear, board the fire trucks, and race to the scene of a call.

Therein lies the biggest obstacle to overcome….time-sensitive response. When lives hang in the balance, each and every second counts. Having full-time paid firefighters only a few steps away from their trucks compared to the volunteers having to drive several miles to perform the same feat can, in the most severe cases, mark the difference between if someone lives or someone dies. And that isn’t a derogatory statement against the volunteer firemen. Rather, it’s a fact of life.

Adding to this mix are the property owners within Ahoskie Rural’s fire tax district. In addition to their county property tax, they pay an additional 4 cents (per $100 of value) that directly funds the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department.

If a merger occurs between the two Ahoskie departments, what becomes of this tax money? Will it be used to purchase new equipment for the town or for upkeep on the town’s existing equipment?

A better question to ask is – if the merger occurs and the volunteers are now covering both the town and the rural district – how will future fire calls be prioritized. By that I mean if the volunteers are answering an in-town call (whether it’s a structure fire, motor vehicle accident, gas leak, etc.) and there’s a simultaneous call in the rural district, who makes the decision of which is more important?

And, if response times are lengthened in the rural district, Ahoskie Rural’s fire suppression rating increases, meaning higher insurance premiums for homeowners.

This possible merger is a “lose-lose” situation for all involved. The citizens of Ahoskie and those residing within the rural district have come to expect the best from these two fire departments over the years – fast response times and highly trained and skilled firefighters.

I encourage Mr. McDuffie to seek another option to save money. Jeopardizing public safety is not the answer.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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