Kansas Forest Service provides resources, equipment to rural fire districts
By Michelle Hall
It's not uncommon for rural fire districts across the state to operate with budgets of less than $10,000 -- to protect their residents for an entire year. So where do these departments find the money for the expensive and specialized equipment needed to perform their jobs?
This is where the Army, the federal government and the Kansas Forest Service step in.
Since the late 1960s, the Federal Excess Property Program has helped rural fire departments across Kansas receive trucks, trailers, generators, compressors, water pumps, flood lights and extrication tools that the Kansas Forest Service has refurbished. The program, which is active across the country, mainly involves cargo or other general-purpose trucks -- 1- to 5-ton, all-wheel drive vehicles, which can be converted to fire trucks. In rare cases, the service receives an actual structural fire truck.
"We get lots of requests for humvees, but we've never seen one," said Casey McCoy, fire management coordinator with the Kansas Forest Service. The Kansas Forest Service is a state agency housed within the department of horticulture, forestry and recreation in Kansas State University's College of Agriculture. The truck pictured at right is one they've worked and will be used at the Kansas Forest Service state forestry office for fire training classes, technology transfer and fire supression.
The equipment is no longer needed by the federal agency that purchased it originally -- usually the Army. The vehicles are still technically owned by the government and are loaned to the Kansas Forest Service at no cost, and they in turn sub-loan them to the local fire districts, also at no cost. But this transfer doesn't happen until the Forest Service has spent three to four days changing out rag tops for hard tops, replacing tires, checking the brakes, replacing the batteries and the battery box, putting in new seats and new windows and fixing any leaks. The service employs two mechanics solely to fix up these vehicles, help maintain the vehicles after they are issued and deliver them to their destinations.
The Kansas Forest Service receives the parts to fix up the trucks at a discount through another federal program, Military Standard Requisitioning and Issue Procedures. Right now the Forest Service has about 80 trucks behind their Manhattan offices waiting for their makeovers. McCoy said they were able to pick the best ones recently out of a few hundred -- the main thing was making sure the trucks run.
"As long as the motor runs, we can fix the rest," he said.
After the fire districts receive the vehicles, they convert the trucks from "greenfleet" to a functional fire truck. This includes a little bit of (usually red) paint, a pump, a tank and some lights and sirens.
"The fortunate thing about volunteer fire departments is they usually have members who are painters, plumbers and electricians for their day job," McCoy said.
Blue Township Volunteer Fire Department, which oversees the southeast corner of Pottawatomie County, has received three of the eight vehicles in their current fleet through the Federal Excess Property Program, chief Eric Ward said. The largest is one of the few structural fire trucks the Forest Service has received through the program. Another is a utility van for supporting equipment and the third is a multi-use/wildland truck. The department has used other Federal Excess Property trucks in the past, Ward added. He said although his department puts a fair amount of money and work into the vehicles, "it is nothing compared to what it would have taken to buy them new." Some of the equipment added to the trucks can be taken off and reused when that truck is no longer functional as well, he said.
"This saved us literally tens of thousands of dollars," Ward said. For rural fire districts, the all-wheel drive fire trucks are ideal, he added; they often need to take them off-road to fight a fire.
Ward said the program is "outstanding" and has been the "lifeblood of many small fire departments in Kansas and around the country.
"This is why many departments exist," he said. "They've been fantastic; a tremendous help."
Ward said he has witnessed a major growth in the Kansas Forest Service's Federal Excess Property Program in the past few years -- and McCoy said they plan to keep it growing. Eventually the goal is for the Forest Service to provide the tank for the truck in addition to all the other fix-ups. At this point, money and manpower prevent that. McCoy's office has also worked to construct a remote-controlled nozzle from scratch instead of purchasing commercially built versions. This would save rural departments thousands of dollars and allow them to control water flow from inside their fire trucks.
At this time, the Forest Service has about 615 trucks with an acquisition value of more than $14 million and a conservative replacement value of about $45 million out across the state right now, in 90 of the 105 Kansas counties. They also have a wish list and a replacement list miles long for fire departments needing a truck or a vehicle to replace one that is becoming too old.
"If it wasn't for this program, there would be communities that wouldn't have the level of fire protection they do," McCoy said. "It's unreal to see what these fire departments operate on. Without this program, some towns may not have a truck."
The Federal Excess Property Program is only one of the many services the rural fire division of the Kansas Forest Service provides to rural fire districts. As part of the cooperative fire protection program, the service offers wildland fire training, grants and cost-share programs to rural and volunteer fire districts, fire prevention materials for adults and children and master fire planning information. McCoy said they are beginning a new outreach to aid departments at the edge of wildland and urban areas. Here, there is much potential for wildfires to burn houses, and smaller, less equipped fire districts can mean higher insurance for those homeowners. The service recently received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to build a trailer full of information on wildland/urban interface.
Image courtesy Casey McCoy.