Grand Lake Fire Administrator Cheryl Dale attends National Fire Academy training
Concerns over natural disasters are a fundamental part of life in the high country.
Every season poses its own unique dangers from avalanches, to floods to forest fires that can consume entire communities in the span of a few hours. Local governments and entities such as fire protection districts work to prevent calamity, but most of their efforts are directed at reducing the impacts of such disasters after they have begun and their abilities are limited by their budgets.
The nature and size of most natural disasters, be they floods or wildfires, or in the case of many coastal regions in the US hurricanes, means that annual budgets for mitigation efforts can easily be wiped out from a single incident, if the impacts are severe enough.
Last summer’s Rifle Range Fire just west of Byer’s Canyon in Grand County quickly became an expensive endeavor as several county and state agencies were called in to battle the blaze and aircraft flew multiple sorties to drop water and flame retardant onto the conflagration. While the Rifle Range fire took a toll on local budgets the size of the blaze was comparatively small to others that have engulfed regions of the state over the last few years.
When the Colorado Black Forest Fire was sparked near Colorado Springs in the summer of 2013 it quickly spread and eventually destroyed 486 homes and killed two people. The damage was severe enough that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized federal funds to be used to help cover costs related to the fire.
Application for reimbursement of funds through FEMA is no simple task though and as with everything else relating to money with the federal government, calling the process “complicated” is something of an understatement. Grand Lake Fire Protection District (GLFPD) Administrator Cheryl Dale knows exactly how complicated that process can be. Earlier this year Dale attended an intensive weeklong class at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg Md. studying public assistance for community reimbursement, or as Dale put it, “basically a class to apply for FEMA aid.”
While the idea may seems simple at face value the intricacies of the system, and the requirements the federal government places on those applying for funds, means that those without extensive training on the application process are unlikely to receive assistance.
“One of the things we strive for as an entity supported by taxpayers is to be fiscally responsible,” said Dale. One part of that responsibility is being as prepared as possible to cover costs in the event of a major natural disaster.
Dale, who began as a volunteer with the GLFPD starting in 2010, is the department’s current Administrator. Additionally she has a background in both Internet technologies and data management. After GLFPD Fire Chief Mike Long heard that the National Fire Academy was planning on holding a class on applying for FEMA funding he encouraged Dale to apply for one of the classes open slots.
During her time in Emmitsburg Dale learned all about how and when communities can apply for FEMA funding, how much funding can or will be dispersed and what sort of auditing requirements FEMA places on entities that receive funds. FEMA disperses funds only after the President has made a declaration of a national emergency/disaster. FEMA will reimburse up to 75 percent of costs related to losses from a natural disaster. Applicants must prove, through receipts and other documentation, their previous ownership or liability related to a loss from a disaster.
“From a fire department perspective, if we apply for emergency aid it is not to pay for our salaries,” Dale pointed out. “It is to pay for overtime. If we need to bring in bulldozers that need to be paid for, if they need to bring in materials, those are the types of things we can apply for.”
Dale explained the most critical aspect of applying for FEMA funds is information tracking. “Tracking all that is critical, having all that information. You have to prove it, they are not going to take your word for it,” she said.
She used a hypothetical example to explain how in-depth FEMA requires applications be for reimbursement. “Say we had one of our stations burned and the equipment inside was damaged,” Dale said. “We would need to come up with records that prove not only did we have the equipment, but also proves that we had regular maintenance on it and that it was in working order.”
Dale also highlighted how important it was for her to learn about how FEMA conducts audits of anyone who has received reimbursement funds. “That was a key piece for me,” Dale said. “If you apply to FEMA you need to keep a box or boxes of everything you have supporting that. You have to keep it for years in case they come back and audit. If you can’t provide that they will come and take their money back.”
Dale referred to her attendance of the National Fire Academy as, “an absolutely incredible experience.” “I had high hopes for the class and it came to pass,” she added. Dale said she felt the class at the National Fire Academy has prepared her to be able to apply for funding if or when a major disaster strikes Grand County. “I feel confident, from a Grand Lake Fire perspective, that we could go through any reimbursement process.”
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