Homeland Christmas, in July 

What did you want for Christmas when you were eight? Maybe some Legos, maybe Lincoln Logs? How about a shiny, new, red fire truck? Celebrating Christmas in July, a dozen small Montana cities and towns will ring in the Fourth with new trucks or new equipment, courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

A few weeks ago, the department began distributing grants through FEMA to communities across the Big Sky: $31,500 for a fire fighting vehicle to the Hogeland Fire Department, $6,633 for fire operations and firefighter safety to the Martin City Rural Fire Department and $29,100 to the Clyde Park Volunteer Fire Department for safety equipment. The grants are among 219 across the country, a number that’s ultimately expected to grow to around 7,000—$750 million in direct assistance to firefighters allocated by 2003’s federal Assistance to Firefighter Grant program.

Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that Clyde Park isn’t a hotbed of Hamas cells, but the department has its reasons for distributing security dollars to small, rural towns.

“We’re taking care of first responders throughout the country, and we’re helping them take care of their hometowns, which then correlates to homeland security,” says FEMA Region Eight Director David Maurstad. “We have to remember that homeland security goes beyond terrorism. Secretary [Tom] Ridge has talked many times about an ‘all hazards’ approach, and preparing for and responding to both man-made attacks and nature.”

Maurstad believes that part of being a nation prepared for the worst is being able to fight wildfires and fires in cities—even cities like Montana’s tiny Martin City. He also wants people to remember that keeping the homeland secure goes beyond attacks from foreign terrorists.

“In our neck of the woods, so to speak, domestic terrorism is just as big a threat as foreign terrorism.”

Clyde Park Volunteer Fire Department Chief Don Oberquell doesn’t care why or how the money gets to his department. He’s just glad the federal government is finally catching up to his longstanding needs.

“We’re just an itty-bitty town, so we don’t get much money,” says Oberquell. “So, yeah, we were really excited to get this money.”

Clyde Park won’t be getting a new truck, but it will be getting new safety equipment like fire-retardant jackets and helmets, and new hoses for their old truck. Oberquell says that the department has some equipment that’s almost forty years old. Before the feds stepped in to help out, Oberquell’s department had resorted to mill levies and charity to find the funds to keep going.

Oberquell knows that his little crew isn’t going to do much to combat Al Qaeda, but he still thinks the money is being put to good use.

“I think the government is primarily back-filling a safety need,” he says. “Five years ago, when we had fires here, the only thing we could have done was stay back from it and squirt what water we could have on it…the department was at risk.”

Now, the chief says, citizens and firefighters both are safer. And if Al Qaeda ever strikes in rural Montana, rural Montana will be ready.

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