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Column: Cut red tape on firefighting equipment

Each year, more than 3,000 wildfires burn about 130,000 acres across Florida, threatening the lives of Floridians as well as their homes and businesses. The men and women of the Florida Forest Service, in partnership with local firefighters, bravely risk their lives to battle these blazes and protect others.

Across the country, some communities are at even greater risk of wildfire due to extremely dry conditions. Last week, wildfires scorched more than 1 million acres in the Pacific Northwest, destroying hundreds of homes and risking many more lives. American firefighters, including 20 on loan from the Florida Forest Service, are working tirelessly to suppress these wildfires and save lives. Providing them with adequate equipment is critical to their efforts and to their own protection.

The Obama administration, however, must not agree. Just last month, the administration canceled two programs that provide firefighters with more than $150 million in military equipment the federal government no longer needs. Instead, the administration determined the surplus equipment must be destroyed.

Surely, you must be wondering what fatal safety flaw was discovered that would prevent firefighters from receiving these much-needed federal government hand-me-downs. The simple answer from the administration is that the surplus equipment did not meet the Environmental Protection Agency's air emissions standards.

Clearly, this determination to destroy excess military equipment critical to local firefighters ignores the obvious — significant amounts of air pollutants are emitted by out-of-control fires. So in a misguided attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the administration is instead allowing more pollutants to be released into the air while destroying countless acres of environmentally sensitive land and hundreds of homes and, more importantly, putting the lives of American firefighters at greater risk.

While it was heartening to see the administration backpedal on this plan at the urging of Sen. John McCain, who said "we see no justification for government red tape to stand in the way of helping first responders," I can't ignore how out of whack the priorities of the Obama administration must be to take such action in the first place. In reinstating the programs they canceled, the administration felt obliged to create more red tape and implement new requirements on local firefighting units. As beneficiaries of this second-hand equipment, small town volunteer firefighters are now required to track and return every item the feds gave away so the equipment can still be destroyed.

Nearly 200 fire units across Florida have 600 items of federal surplus equipment, such as backhoes, dozers and cargo trucks. Not only will firefighters now have to track each piece of equipment and send it back for destruction, departments will be wary to invest in refurbishing this expensive equipment knowing the feds could take back their "lease" at any moment.

Firefighters risk their lives to protect other Americans, some even on a volunteer basis. The least the Obama administration can do is provide surplus federal equipment to support their efforts and protect their lives — without all the red tape and hassle.

Adam Putnam is Florida's commissioner of agriculture and oversees the Florida Forest Service.

Column: Cut red tape on firefighting equipment 07/25/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2014 6:44pm]
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