EPA reaches agreement with rural fire departments

UPDATE: The DLA and EPA have reached an agreement that allows the transfer of excess equipment to continue for both law enforcement and firefighting agencies.   Managers of affected programs are being notified that the temporary suspension has been lifted.

ROSALIA, Kansas – Rural fire departments across Kansas say they are getting ‘thrown out of business’ at the hands of the federal government, and specifically, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

A federal program that was established 20 years ago offered small communities, and most notably rural fire departments, old military vehicles to be used to combat fires, among other uses. The military surplus program offered communities the vehicles for cheap or on loan.

“We’ve been able to get them for no cost and we fix them up, make sure they’re mechanically sound and then issue them out to fire departments,” said Eric Ward, the Excess Property Manager for the Kansas Forest Service.

It seems, however, that program has come to an end; at least for now.

KSN spoke with Rosalia Fire District #5 Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dean Bender, whose entire firefighting fleet is made up of 6 of these military vehicles.

Bender tells KSN that, in an email from a division of the Kansas Forest Service, he was informed that the decades-long federal agreement had come to an end and they could no longer distribute the vehicles. Their reasoning: pollution emissions from the military vehicles.

“Eventually, it’ll put the rural fire departments out of business,” said Bender. “We might be able to have one truck.”

Bender is also concerned about residents’ safety.

“Protection won’t be there in years to come. We’re fixed up right now, probably ten years down the road, before we’ll actually need to replace trucks,” said Bender.

In a statement from the EPA, KSN was told, “EPA has been working with DOD and USDA so that vehicles will continue to be available to state and local fire and law enforcement departments through this program.”

Those parameters however, have not yet been clearly defined, which worries Chief Bender.

“We can’t afford to buy new equipment. With a $60,000 budget, we can’t – we just can’t do it,” said Bender. “We’ll no longer be able to afford vehicles to fight fire… That’s basically what it boils down to.”

At the federal level, the debate centers on environmental health. However, in rural Kansas, fire chiefs tell KSN it’s about fire safety and the financial ability to keep up with the demands of new, often more expensive legislation.

For rural Kansas communities, the responsibility of battling grass fires often falls on small, volunteer fire departments that have little money and resources and fire chiefs say this ruling will only make matters worse.

The Kansas Forest Service reports 455 military vehicles of the kind currently in use in the state, in 85 of the 105 counties in Kansas. The entire fleet of these vehicles is estimated at around $21 million.

To learn more about the Kansas Forest Service, click here.

For more information about the United States Environmental Protection Agency, visit their website at http://www.epa.gov/

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