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February 19, 2013

Indiana House approves disaster relief funding bill

INDIANAPOLIS — When the small southern Indiana town of Henryville was hit with a deadly tornado last March, the state called in firefighters and first responders from communities across the state to come to the town’s aid.

It was only much later that state officials realized that a glitch in a law would keep them from reimbursing local communities for their help. But legislation that passed through the Indiana House this week aims to fix the problem.

A bill authored by state Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, would give some financial relief to local fire departments that respond to the state’s call when a disaster hits another community.

House Bill 1325 creates a mechanism that allows the state Department of Homeland Security to tap into the State Disaster Relief Fund to help those local departments pay the firefighters they send into another community and the backup firefighters they have to bring in.

Homeland Security Director John Hill said Frye’s bill, which he supported, fulfills the intent of the fund. He said fire departments from outside the Henryville area had to absorb about $15,000 in extra costs by responding to the disaster. “That doesn’t sound like much money, but to local departments, that’s a lot.”

Frye said his legislation was prompted by the situation that arose after Henryville, when he heard that firefighters were worried that budget concerns might cause their departments to second-guess a call for help.

“Communities are always willing to help their neighbors when assistance is needed,” Frye said. “However, the financial burden of responding to disasters caused communities to second-guess helping people in need. With this bill, a local fire department will never again have to see if saving lives fits in the budget.”

The State Disaster Relief Fund was set up in 2007, with a 5 percent “safety tax” tacked onto fireworks to pay for it. The $2 million fund was intended to help cover the costs of the state’s response to emergencies or disasters.

But the law was written in a way that the money could only be used if the Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed local firefighters and rescue workers to a disaster scene.

After the deadly tornado hit Henryville last March, nearly wiping out the town, it was former Gov. Mitch Daniels who deployed the relief personnel.

Frye’s bill passed out of the House with a unanimous vote Monday and is headed for the Senate.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse Bureau for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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