News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 10, 2014

Feds relent: Military to restore equipment program for fire departments

INDIANAPOLIS — An agreement has been reached to keep surplus military equipment rolling into rural fire department bays in Indiana and 47 other states.

The Department of Defense announced Wednesday that it’s resuming a popular program that provided rolling stock, engines and other equipment to small, financially strapped fire departments.

The program was halted recently after concerns arose that the diesel engines in the aging surplus equipment didn’t meet current federal air quality standards.

After an outcry from firefighters nationwide and pressure from Congress, federal officials decided to resume the program by allowing fire departments to come under a “national security” exemption granted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for military equipment used to defend the nation.

Details of the new agreement had yet to be released to Indiana officials who administer the military surplus program. They’re wary of the possible new restrictions on the program, but heartened by the news that it had been restarted.

“This is a critical program for volunteer fire departments around the state,” said Darren Bridges, the assistant state fire coordinator for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “Firefighters absolutely rely on this equipment.”

More than 250 volunteer fire departments in Indiana have received about $12 million in surplus military equipment that otherwise would have been sent to depots and supply yards to be crushed or scrapped.

Much of the equipment consists of heavy-duty vehicles that are retrofitted as fire trucks. New trucks can cost up to $150,000, which is beyond most volunteer fire departments’ budgets.

The U.S. EPA issued a brief statement Wednesday, saying it had come to an agreement with the Defense Department’s Defense Logistics Agency to restart the program.

Neither agency offered much detail on the new conditions placed on the program. But a DLA spokesman acknowledged that fire departments would have to work with the state to return the equipment to the military, rather than sell it as surplus, once the equipment reaches the end of its lifespan.

There’s no word on how long the state must store equipment until federal authorities retrieve it or if the state must ship the equipment back to the Department of Defense.

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican member of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, pushed for the program to be restored. He said the revived program, with new requirements, is “the best short-term answer to maintain the program.”

In a statement released to the press, he said he still hopes to “address the unnecessary regulation created by the agreement.”

When it abandoned the program, federal officials cited a 25-year-old agreement by the Defense Department to abide by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The sudden decision outraged fire officials and lawmakers, who demanded that the program be restarted. Fueling their criticism was an announcement that the government planned to destroy vehicles with engines that didn’t meet EPA emission standards.

Maureen Hayden reports from Indianapolis for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company.

Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Janelle Stecklein reports from Oklahoma City for CNHI’s Oklahoma newspapers. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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