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July 2, 2014

No more military trucks for small-town firehouses

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

The Department of Defense cancelled a program that provided $150 million worth of extra equipment each year to small fire departments in 48 states, a spokeswoman for the U.S Forest Service confirmed.

Engines in the vehicles did not comply with government environmental 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 caused a scramble in Oklahoma, where about 800 rural departments use 8,812 pieces of surplus equipment, said George Geissler, state director of forestry services. Each year the state gets $13 million to $15 million worth of equipment, which it distributes to a waiting list of needy departments.

Few details were available about how the shutdown affects equipment already assigned to those firehouses. A spokeswoman for a Defense Department surplus program said she was unaware of any changes.

One of the program's biggest benefits has been to provide vehicles that would otherwise cost $150,000 to $200,000 to small departments. Instead those fire departments only have to equip the vehicle - at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000.

“There are a lot of departments out there that are not going to be able to afford this," Geissler said. "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.”

An example is the volunteer department in Little Axe, serves 4,500 residents west of Shawnee and has an annual budget of about $47,000. The department which got a tanker through the program. Chief Allen Schneider said the hand-me-down truck saved nearly $150,000.

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

In a statement, the National Association of State Foresters said the program delivered more than $150 million each year in surplus equipment used by fire departments throughout the country. Ending it increases the risk of lost lives and property, the group 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.

Janelle Stecklein covers politics and government for CNHI newspapers in Oklahoma. Contact her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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