Tuesday, May 22, 2007

House Votes to Secure Fire Funding

Contact: State Rep. Joe Dorman
Capitol: (405) 557-7305
Email: joedorman@okhouse.gov
House Votes to Secure Fire Funding
OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation that prevents the diversion of state money intended for firefighting service training is one vote away from the governor's desk.
House Bill 1520, by state Rep. Joe Dorman, creates the "Firefighter Training Revolving Fund." The bill directs funding for firefighting programs through Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training, funneling the cash primarily through the State Fire Marshal Commission. The commission would be required to ensure the money is used for training programs as lawmakers intend.
"In the past there have been problems with money not being spent as intended for fire-service training in times of financial cuts to the state budget," said Dorman, D-Rush Springs. "Having faced severe drought conditions and loss of lives, land and property in wildfires over the last few years, it's time the Legislature guaranteed that fire funding is used for its intended purpose.
"Oklahoma's firefighters – both volunteers and paid professionals – did a great job protecting our land and families, but it remains crucial for them to receive up-to-date training in the latest techniques and equipment each year."
The bill would also create the "Incident Management Site Task Force," charged with studying and making recommendations for effective emergency command site management consistent with the federal National Incident Management System (NIMS) guidelines.
The bill will also include other reforms that reduce the cost of training for Oklahoma firefighters and make training more widely available, including developing, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security, a program to educate firefighters on a unified command protocol for fire incidents.
While the training would be provided through Oklahoma State University's nationally recognized Fire Service Training School, it would be conducted at CareerTech and college campuses across Oklahoma and other facilities with qualified classrooms that have the proper equipment in place or even at local fire departments. Currently, most training is done at the OSU campus in Stillwater, though training in recent years has been increased in other areas.
"Providing training at accessible locations will reduce traveling expenses on fire departments with already tight budgets," Dorman said.
Dorman noted many of the proposals contained in House Bill 1520 have been developed by the Council on Fire Training (COFT) and other individuals from various sectors of fire service around the state.
The legislation has been praised by other state officials.
"The passing of HB 1520 develops partnerships between Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training, Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security, Oklahoma State Fire Marshal's Office, institutions of higher education, Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education, local fire department and other qualified entities," said Robert Doke, Oklahoma State Fire Marshal. "These agencies may utilize live classroom session, live exercises and drills, interactive television, independent study and web-based methods. No fire department or firefighter will be too remote to receive firefighter training. With the passage of HB 1520 I believe that Oklahoma will be setting the high standard for firefighter training."
House bill 1520 also creates the "Oklahoma Controlled Burn Indemnity Fund" within the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.
The fund would be used to compensate landowners who utilize controlled burning land-management practices for losses incurred if a fire spreads "beyond the control of the burner." The fund would only cover losses not covered by insurance.
Participating landowners would have to work with a local conservation district office and the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture to develop a controlled burn plan. Landowners would also pay a $100 fee when they file their plan, which would be placed into the indemnity fund.
The Conservation Commission would be allowed to invest assessments and up to $50,000 in annual earnings would be used to compensate landowners for losses incurred as the result of out-of-control fires.
Clay Pope, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts said that the Burn Indemnity Fund would greatly enhance the ability of landowners to use fire as a management tool.
"Fire is underutilized as a management tool for controlling invasive species like cedar trees and for ensuring that brush is controlled because of fear of liability from fires that get away," Pope said. "This bill not only provides some additional financial protection for folks using fire reasonably for management, it also encourages other landowners that are using fire or want to use fire to use it right by filing a prescribed burn plan through the Natural Resources Conservation Service and their local Conservation District. If landowners follow their prescribed burn plan it is highly unlikely that a fire would ever get away from them. This would give us the ability to encourage more landowners to use fire correctly and then give them some assurance that in the unlikely case of a prescribed fire getting out of control, they have some financial protection if they take part in this program."
House Bill 1520 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 92-7 vote on Monday. The bill now goes to the state Senate for a final vote before reaching the governor's desk.

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