Volunteer fire departments across the state are breathing easier after the Department of Defense and Environmental Protection Agency have come up with a ruling that will continue a program allowing fire departments to acquire surplus federal equipment.
Under the Federal Excess Personal Property program, the Nebraska Forest Service, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, acquires spare federal vehicles, including large military trucks, tankers and other vehicles, as well as generators and other equipment.
The equipment is taken to the Nebraska Forest Service Fire Shop near Mead, where it is inspected, repaired, reconditioned and modified to serve as firefighting equipment, which is then made available to volunteer fire departments at very little cost.
The equipment remains federal property, but fire departments have found the program as a low budget way to provide the firefighting equipment they need.
The Firefighter Property Program is similar to the other federal program, except the title is transferred to the local fire department, and the program is limited to Department of Defense vehicles.
Nebraska operates under both programs, but retains the title on the equipment it disperses.
In the Fremont area, practically every volunteer fire department has equipment and vehicles through the Forest Service. In fact, Nickerson received a truck just last week.
The Hooper Volunteer Fire Department in 2012 took delivery of a wild land pumper truck, spending about $10,000 to put the truck into service. Comparatively, buying the same type of truck brand new would cost nearly $200,000.
The Fremont Rural Fire Department has two Forest Service trucks. Fire departments at Yutan, Mead, Weston, Winslow, Prague, Colon, Cedar Bluffs, Scribner and North Bend also are among the volunteer departments in the area with Forest Service vehicles and equipment.
Fire departments became alarmed earlier this month, however, when it was announced that the surplus equipment program would end because many of the Department of Defense vehicles did not meet emissions standards.
“It would have been a major blow to a large number of volunteer fire departments in the state of Nebraska, because there’s a lot of vehicles out there, especially in western Nebraska and in smaller departments that really don’t have the tax base to buy grass rigs and vehicles like that,” said Bill Lundy, secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association.
The heavy-duty military vehicles also have proven ideal for the wild land conditions many fire departments face, he said.
“These are perfect for some of the operations,” he said. “They’re heavy duty trucks that can haul large quantities of water or material and equipment, so they work perfectly. And everything the military owns is all-wheel-drive.”
Since the announcement, however, “cooler heads have prevailed,” said Lew Seiber, who runs the Mead Fire Shop for the Forest Service, “and they have come up with an agreement that is workable.”
There is still confusion and misinformation floating around, Seiber said; he gets several phone calls a day from fire districts that want to know what’s going on.
“Really,” Seiber said, “the firefighters in Nebraska will not see any difference at their level, because it really doesn’t affect them. The major changes will be at my level with some of the administrative duties. We have to inventory the firefighter property more often than we did before. That’s not a big deal.
“The disposal process will be the major change,” he continued. “In the past, where a volunteer fire department had turned a truck back into me, and then if nobody else wanted it, it wound up on public auction, this equipment probably will not be able to go to public auction anymore.”
That will impact people who collect surplus military vehicles, but Seiber expects fire departments to have access to the same equipment his shop has always offered.
“That’s already been established. In fact I already have requisitioned equipment,” he said.
Lundy said he received word of the “gentlemen’s agreement” last week.
“Apparently this agreement still has a number of questions that need to be answered, but it appears as though finally somebody recognized the importance of the program,” he said.
The Mead Fire Shop has 571 pieces of equipment dispersed around Nebraska, including vehicles, generators, pumps and trailers, Seiber said.
“Our present replacement cost is just a tad over $60 million in this state,” he said.
Last year alone the shop placed 96 pieces of equipment.
“The big eight-wheel drive vehicles have gotten so popular, we put out eight of them since the first of the year,” he said.
“Whether it’s a secondary vehicle or an additional grass rig or whatever,” Lundy said, “there’s a lot of Forestry Service vehicles out there, and they have been a Godsend.”