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Mutual aid billing affects FEMA funding

LAWTON, Okla._In the aftermath of severe storms, like those in northeast Oklahoma and Arkansas, we hear about applications for FEMA funding, but that funding can be reduced if specific requirements aren’t followed.

Monday it was learned that funding can be reduced if counties and cities don't follow very specific federal requirements; that was addressed at Monday's Comanche County commissioner’s meeting. It has to do with mutual aid agreements, where city emergency responders help with disasters outside the city limits. It's basically a technicality in those mutual aid agreements when it comes to money. It was seen last year in Moore, after the tornado destruction there.

Comanche County Emergency Management Director, Clint Wagstaff, says there has always been a state-wide mutual aid pact that requires billing, and FEMA requires that for funding, but most communities had simply used a gentlemen's agreement to account for how the costs would be billed. It’s agreements like that which caused a reduction in funding in Moore, which prompted Monday's discussion about putting that in writing.

"We've all followed it some what, but it does have a billing mechanism that the fire departments and other agencies really did not follow until Moore. Then FEMA said we will follow these mutual aid agreements," said Wagstaff.

Wagstaff says everyone is under budget crunches, including FEMA, and he believes that is why they played that card after the Moore tornado.

"Funding is getting tighter everywhere. So they looked at that mutual aid agreement and said ‘you will start billing now’," explained Wagstaff.

The change in this pact adds a provision for times the city helps the county in calls that last more than 8 hours. If they continue to help, they will bill the county. Wagstaff says the 8 hour rule won't hurt much because almost all responses in the county don't last that long, and the ones that go over are the ones normally the county is seeking FEMA funding for anyway.

"If it is a large event and goes over 8 hours more than likely we will be filing for disaster emergency declaration for the county and we should get funding to cover the extended amount of time," Wagstaff explained.

The Emergency Management Director also mentioned that now is the perfect time to make this change, and last nights disasters in northeastern Oklahoma and other states are a good reminder as to why.

"We are in this time frame of tornados and storms and stuff. If something happens between now and the time it is approved we'll still be business as usual and we will continue on," said Wagstaff.

The commissioners were briefed on the pact Monday morning and it is also expected to be on next Monday's agenda. Wagstaff also adds this agreement won't change anything with departments responding in the county or city, it's just to make sure FEMA reimbursement is never affected.

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