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Published August 04 2012

Ask Your Government: Fire departments outside oil counties need help, too

Dear Teri,

I recently read an article regarding oil money for the people of the state of North Dakota. I live in Hannaford, N.D., and even though it is a town of about 130 people, we live on a very popular BNSF rail line. A 110-car train comes through this town every 45 minutes or so.

With the increase of oil production in the western half of the state, trains carrying 100 cars of petroleum have become a regular sight to see since the boom. Even though we are on the eastern side of North Dakota, is there any way our fire department could get money to improve our trucks or equipment?

Thanks,

Marc Haaland

Hannaford

Thanks for writing! I went two routes with providing an answer. The first has to do with the state’s energy impact grants (which I think are what you’re inquiring about) and then what other help may be available.

It’s true the state Land Board has provided money to help fire departments impacted by the rapid growth that has come along with oil activity. However, energy impact grants have been limited to the 17 oil- and gas-producing counties in western North Dakota.

The biggest reasons for this: These counties are seeing the greatest impacts of the oil activity, there is limited funding available and most of the money for these grants came from within these counties in the first place.

Here’s the back story:

State law directs oil and gas impact grants to be provided to cities, counties, townships, school districts and other taxing districts impacted by energy development and production, said Lance Gaebe, director of the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office.

Applications from North Dakota counties with active drilling rigs and oil and gas production receive primary consideration for funding, he said.

The majority of the money for this grant program comes from a tax that oil companies operating in these counties have to pay to the state.

The Legislature agreed to set aside $100 million of this tax revenue to help oil counties with energy impacts. Legislators later approved another

$35 million in general fund money after seeing the need for more funding.

Although $135 million is a relatively big chunk of money, state officials get requests from the 17 oil counties for millions and millions of more dollars than are available. (As a side note, just a few years ago, there was $8 million available for this program until western North Dakota convinced the Legislature it wasn’t enough.)

Earlier this year, the Energy Infrastructure and Impact Office received requests for $40.4 million in grants during the emergency services funding round, which included fire departments. Granted, not all of these requests met the emergency services criteria, but most did.

The Land Board ended up approving $12 million in grants to benefit emergency services, with $7.45 million specifically benefitting fire departments and joint law enforcement/fire/ambulance projects.

Gaebe said an additional $4 million will be awarded to emergency response services starting this fall. The remaining energy impact money primarily goes to help with infrastructure needs, especially within the oil cities to support housing growth.

Gaebe said state officials consider the following when awarding grants: how much the need is a result of direct oil and gas development; readiness of the project for implementation; health, welfare and safety considerations; and financial need.

Those who get a grant still have to come up with a portion of the cost of the project.

Since this program isn’t of immediate help for your area, I also contacted North Dakota Firefighter’s Association Executive Director Renee Loh. Here’s what she said:

“There are programs for grant requests. However, fire departments across the nation are having the same issues, leading to a probable reduction in the chances of receiving grant awards.

“Some of the grants that are available in North Dakota are: Assistance to Firefighter Grant, Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, volunteer fire department grants through the North Dakota Forest Service, private grants such as Workforce Safety and Insurance’s ergonomic grant, Department of Emergency Services grants and, of course, the tremendous energy impact grants.

“The Firefighter’s Association sends out immediate information on any possible funding sources. It is worthy to report that many more fire departments have sent in requests recently and, when they call for advice in filling out the forms, we assist them with understanding how to respond to the grant application and what the peer reviewers will be looking for in the grant request.

“When I received your email, the first thought was, ‘This question posed to you could have been written by any fire department in North Dakota.’ The dynamics have changed across North Dakota’s landscape and, in some ways, each fire department in North Dakota has been touched.

“There are chemicals that are being trucked, railed and transported throughout the state that have brought the fire departments to a greater level of incident responsibility. And the difficulty is that the fire departments are not as prepared, and they would like to be, but they do not have the financial resources.

“It is vital that the fire departments receive support so that there are an increased number of trained, frontline firefighters that are available to respond in the North Dakota communities. With continued state growth, the incidents will continue to grow.”


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Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications