Military stops giving leftover equipment to rural firefighters

Military stops giving leftover equipment to rural firefighters

06 July 2014

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USA —  A government program that sent spare military trucks, tankers and other vehicles to rural fire departments throughout Indiana has dried up, potentially putting small towns and county governments on the hook for expensive, new equipment.

The U.S. Department of Defense has canceled a program that gave $150 million worth of extra equipment each year to small fire departments across the country. About $12 million worth of surplus equipment is now on loan to more than 250 volunteer fire departments in Indiana.

Engines in the vehicles did not comply with government’s air pollution control standards, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, which has acted as an intermediary matching surplus vehicles with states that needed them.

The decision has alarmed Indiana officials who rely on volunteer firefighters to fight blazes that break out in homes, barns and businesses in rural areas and to quash an average of 2,700 wildland fires that ignite in the state each year.

“Not allowing the ex-military equipment to be used will have a devastating impact on the firefighting community and the homes and landowners served by these departments,” said John Seifert, director of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry.

“A number of rural volunteer fire departments rely solely on this type of excess property for wildland fire protection,” he said.

The Department of Natural Resources has a waiting list of needy departments that want the equipment, which instead will be sent to depots and supply yards to be crushed or scraped.

Some volunteer firefighters are already worried about the implications of the decision, saying there is no way they can raise the money to buy the equipment on their own.

One of the program’s biggest benefits was to provide vehicles to small departments that would otherwise spend $150,000 to $200,000 to buy them. Instead those departments only had to equip the vehicles — at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000.

 “They’re going to cripple us,” said Byron Baltus, with the Letts Township Volunteer Fire Department in Decatur County. “They’re endangering lives with this decision.”

In Letts Township, the department has already received three military vehicles that were retrofitted as fire trucks and had asked for an additional surplus vehicle to replace a 1968 truck it obtained through the program.

Baltus said the military vehicles withstand conditions common in rural areas.

“It’s great off-the-road equipment when you’ve got to drive through fields to get to the nearest creek to fill up the water tank,” he said. “When a fire breaks out in a rural area, you don’t have the extra 15 or 20 minutes to drive into town to get water.”

Of the $12 million in surplus equipment that’s on loan to small departments around Indiana, Seifert said about $7.5 million worth fails to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions requirements. It’s unclear whether that equipment will have to be pulled from service and mothballed.

Phil Bloom, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, which administers the military surplus program for the state, said officials in his agency understand concerns about emissions from heavy-duty vehicles. But they also worry about pollution from grassland fires that won’t be put out if rural departments don’t have the needed equipment.

“It’s a quandary,” said Bloom.

News of the program’s demise came from the U.S. Forest Service and was delivered to the state officials that administer the federal program. A spokeswoman for a Defense Department surplus program said she was unaware of any changes.

U.S. Forest Service officials said the Defense Department ended the program when it recently decided to enforce a 25-year-old agreement with the EPA that bars the sale, loan or donation of equipment with engines that fail to meet EPA standards.

 In Indiana, state and local officials said they worry that the cost of firefighting equipment will burden rural departments that rely on tax dollars and donations. Local governments that help support those rural departments have seen revenues decline due to the caps on property taxes that took effect in 2010.

“This is going to stress their already stressed budgets,” said Chuck Kemker, head of the Rush County Emergency Management Agency.

In a statement, the National Association of State Foresters said ending the program increases the risk of lost lives and property, 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.

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