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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.

   Pontotoc County Commissioner Justin Roberts said that the impact from the federal cuts will not be too devastating to the county's volunteer rural fire departments. Voters approved a three-sixteenths-of-a-cent sales tax in November 2012 to help fund volunteer fire departments in Pontotoc County. 

   Each volunteer department in the county receives $4,400 per month from this sales tax fund, which started being paid out in June 2013. 

   "For many volunteer fire departments in Pontotoc County, the revenue they receive from the sales tax funds their total operations," Roberts said. "Anytime you can control your own destiny locally, you're miles ahead of the game in my book."

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