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July 2, 2014

Government stops sending surplus equipment to fire departments

OKLAHOMA CITY — Trucks, tankers and other unused federal vehicles are a critical aid to rural fire departments throughout the country, but the supply of surplus rolling stock now appears to have dried up.

The federal government has ended a program that provides millions of dollars worth of equipment to thousands of rural fire departments, including nearly 800 in Oklahoma, said George Geissler, state director of forestry services.

The U.S. Department of Defense ended the program when it recently decided to enforce a 25-year-old agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, Geissler said.

Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said her agency received informal notice that the Defense Department was upholding the agreement after it was determined that engines in its vehicles did not meet EPA standards.

The Forest Service acts as an intermediary between the federal agencies and about 48 states that use the surplus equipment program.

As of Tuesday, rural Oklahoma fire departments were using 8,812 pieces of federal surplus equipment valued at $150 million, said Geissler. Each year the state receives $13 million to $15 million worth of equipment, which is then distributed to a waiting list of departments in need.

Few details were available about what the shutdown means for equipment already distributed to departments across the state. A spokeswoman for a Defense Department surplus program said Tuesday that she was not aware of any changes.

One of the surplus program's biggest benefits is that it provides vehicles that would normally cost a small fire department $150,000 to $200,000.

Instead departments only have to equip the vehicle, at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000.

“The cost to all these fire departments would go up astronomically,” Geissler said. “There are a lot of departments out there that are not going to be able to afford this. They serve small areas — small, rural communities — and to get a piece of equipment like we’re talking about, they’re just not going to be able to afford it.”

One example is the Little Axe Volunteer Fire Department, which received a tanker through the program, said Chief Allen Schneider. The department serves 4,500 residents west of Shawnee and has an annual budget of about $47,000.

Schneider said getting a truck through the program saved nearly $150,000.

“That’s a lot of years in my budget to pay for one truck,” he said, adding that a decision to end the program is “ludicrous.”

“That’s going to impact a lot of people,” said Schneider, noting that his department is well supplied for now. “I know there are a lot of departments out there that actually rely on them. This is going to hurt them immensely.”

In a statement, the National Association of State Foresters said the federal program delivered more than $150 million each year in equipment to be used by state and local departments throughout the country. Ending the program increases the risk of lost lives and property, it said, and inflates the costs of fighting wildfire.

“For many small departments, federal excess equipment may be the only equipment they can afford," the group said.

Mike Honigsberg, director of emergency management for Enid and Garfield County, said a dozen rural departments in his area are supported by a sales tax. But he criticized the decision to stop the surplus program as another intrusion by the federal government into local affairs.

“They’ll hurt some departments out there,” he said.

Instead, Geissler said the federal government will send surplus vehicles — even those with only 1,000 miles — to depots and supply yards to be crushed or scraped.

“This was an alternative to just crushing them,” he said. “This was all this equipment that had useful life. It allowed rural fire departments and those out in rural areas to provide for wildland fire defense. It gives these vehicles that still have a useful purpose kind of that second lease on life.”

Geissler said state officials are working with the state's congressional delegation in hopes of finding a solution.

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