The Norman Transcript

September 27, 2006

From trash to tanker: Program aids rural fire departments

By Melissa A. Wabnitz

Transcript Staff Writer

GOLDSBY — It may seem unlikely, but the same tanker truck used to transport water to firefighters in Slaughterville, Little Axe, Cedar Country, Lexington and Blanchard may have seen the front lines of war in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Since 1980, a little-known Forest Service program, based in the heart of Oklahoma, has been outfitting rural Oklahoma firefighting units with surplus vehicles from the Department of Defense, among other governmental agencies.

Jim Pitts, of the Forestry Services Division of the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department, said the 940 rural and “small town” fire departments he contracts with throughout the state have access to the surplus equipment. And, under the new Fire Fighters Property Program, they get to keep the it.

“We get on the Internet and can look at the property anywhere,” Pitts said. “Usually it says very little about the equipment, so we call and ask, ‘Is it running? Tell us a little bit about it.’ … We try to get the best of the best.”

If the screeners like what they see and the scheduling works out, the crews load up one of the department’s massive transporters and haul it back to Oklahoma.

Allen Schneider, Little Axe Fire chief, said in past years his department would receive vehicles from the Goldsby location, outfit them, and ultimately return them to the Forestry Department once they were no longer useable.

“Now, these actually can become our vehicles, titles and all,” Schneider said. “They just ask that we build them into functional firefighting apparatus. The one we just got was a 1985 Freightliner and we’ve been asked to paint it, put a tank on it, put a pump on it and make it into a tanker in six months.”

The $5,000 to $6,000 it may cost to outfit the government trucks is a far cry from the $15,000 to $20,000 Schneider estimates they will be worth when completed.

“Without this particular program, it would be very, very expensive to run our fire department,” he said. “We’d have very old vehicles and we wouldn’t be able to update the equipment as easy.”

Melissa A. Wabnitz