Peggy Killian’s journey to become Southold’s first female fire chief

04/10/2014 8:00 AM |

Southold Fire Department’s second assistant chief Craig Goldsmith (from left), first assistant chief James Rich, and Chief Peggy Killian during Sunday’s swearing-in ceremony at Giorgio’s in Baiting Hollow. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

She’s been a Southold EMT, a rescue squad leader, a lieutenant in the fire department, then captain, then assistant chief.

But Peggy Killian was quick to downplay her own accomplishments, saying she’s simply honored to be a member of the close-knit department. 

“It’s all team in this fire department,” Ms. Killian said. “You work as a group, you train as a group.”

She’s even quicker to dismiss the history she’s making.

“I’m just moving from this seat to that seat,” she said in an interview last week, pointing to head chief Bill Byrnes’ desk across the room. “I don’t look at it as a female-versus-male thing. I work as a mechanic. I’ve been in a male field my whole life.”

Ms. Killian was elected Thursday night as the first female fire chief in the Southold Fire Department’s 128-year history. Her election marks only the second time in North Fork history that a woman has been named the head chief of a fire department.

She was sworn in at the department’s annual dinner Sunday, dressed in her chief’s uniform and surrounded by fellow firefighters, who said her dedication sets her apart.

“She’s a remarkable person who gives 100 percent to everything she does,” said Mr. Byrnes, the outgoing chief.

Ms. Killian’s journey into the fire services started early.

“My grandfather was a city fireman,” she recalled. “He used to tell me about city fires and I would think ‘Oh that sounds like a cool job.’ ” The stories of her grandfather’s heroics inspired her to join a private company as an emergency medical technician after moving to Southold following college.

When the fire department began handling emergency services in Southold Town in the late 1980s, it only made sense for her to join. Ms. Killian began volunteering with the department in 1991, and joined its water rescue team. She is also certified as an advanced EMT.

“She got right into EMS and she’s continually improving her knowledge so she’s on top of her game,” said captain and department chaplain Joe McCarthy, who has volunteered with Ms. Killian since she joined. “She just excelled at what she did.”

She’s delivered so many babies, she’s almost lost count. It’s those moments that make volunteering worthwhile, she said.

“All the doom and gloom, all the fatalities we deal with and all the horrible stuff,” Ms. Killian said. “That little baby born is …” She trailed off as tears welled in her eyes.

Ms. Killian had served for years with her business partner, former Southold firefighter Frank Locrotondo, who died earlier this year after a long battle with a form of early dementia.

“We ran a lot of calls together,” she said.

Officers in the department said that when Mr. Locrotondo, a training officer, left the department to fight his illness, Ms. Killian stepped up.

“The way she relied on Frank, we rely on her,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It’s her dedication, her desire to help other people.”

While serving as a woman has been challenging, Ms. Killian said she doesn’t see herself as a woman in the fire department: she’s just another one of the firefighters.

But Ms. Killian said she found she had to show that she was worthy of her fellow volunteers’ trust.

“Being a female was difficult,” she admitted. “We opened the door for the rest.”

Ms. Killian says women are welcome to join the fire service, but they have to be ready to prove themselves if they want to fight fires alongside the men.

Mr. McCarthy said Ms. Killian’s gender hasn’t been a problem at all.

“It was never a contentious issue because she was always working the calls,” he said. “She was always there for us, a first-on-the-scene type of person.”

Carol Miller, who served the East Marion Fire Department as the first female fire chief on the North Fork, now works with Ms. Killian as secretary for the Southold Fire District.

“I’m like Peggy; I didn’t want any recognition,” Ms. Miller said. “I said to her, ‘Peggy, it’s a great honor, you deserve it.’ … I felt she should have been chief in Southold Town before I was.”

Ms. Miller says there’s no doubt in her mind that the fire department’s newest chief is ready for the job.

“She’s very qualified for this position,” Ms. Miller said. “She cares about her members tremendously. She understands the position to no end.

“We definitely have opened the doors, that’s for sure,” Ms. Miller said. “I’m very proud that she’s in the ‘female’ club with me.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Carol Miller’s current position. She is the Southold Fire District secretary, not the Southold Fire Department secretary.