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New program will reimburse firefighters for border security calls

When federal agents found a corpse floating in the Rio Grande near Los Ebanos on a recent Friday morning, they called local firefighters for help.

The Palmview Fire Department dispatched an ambulance, a boat and six personnel, who spent hours at the scene June 1. They worked with Border Patrol agents to carefully pull the corpse from the Rio Grande.

OscarLongoria“It was a pretty long operation,” said Fire Chief Jerry Alaniz.

Hidalgo County pays for corpse recovery and other emergency services in rural areas, Alaniz said, but the reimbursement doesn’t always cover every expense.

Firefighters in western Hidalgo County routinely work with local police, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Border Patrol agents. Along with fighting fires, they provide first aid to dehydrated migrants, recover corpses from the river and respond to car wrecks caused by smugglers.

“And many times their equipment was being used and they weren’t being reimbursed for it,” said state Rep. Oscar Longoria, who represents western Hidalgo County.
Concerned about the cost to local taxpayers, Longoria added a rider to the state budget.

The rider set aside $1 million to reimburse so-called “first responder agencies” for assisting law enforcement with border-related crime.

First responders, including volunteer fire departments, may be reimbursed for damaged equipment and other expenses. They aren’t required to provide any matching funds.

The Governor’s Office, which is administering the grant program, will prioritize applications from local governments that participate in Operation Stonegarden and the Local Border Security Program.

While the Governor’s Office hadn’t received any grant applications by May 31, more than a dozen prospective applicants had asked about the program, said Deputy Press Secretary Mac Walker.

Longoria said conversations with members of the Mission Fire Department dive team inspired the budget rider.
Whenever a smuggler crashes a car into the Rio Grande — what law enforcement calls a “splashdown” — the team responds. Divers search the murky water by hand, scouring the muddy river bottom for evidence.

They wear $2,000 wetsuits, which protect divers from hazardous materials, and work in teams for safety, said Deputy Fire Chief Joel Dominguez. Divers communicate using special masks with built-in radios.

“So it’s not a basic wetsuit and stuff I can buy at Academy,” Dominguez said. “It’s specialized equipment.”

Divers frequently tear gloves and wetsuits on concrete debris. Mission taxpayers foot the bill.

“If they’re calling our local folks to go and use their equipment, I think we should be able to take care of those resources,” Longoria said.

Dominguez said he’s already preparing a list of border-related incidents for possible reimbursement.

The grant program could also provide a major boost to cash-strapped volunteer fire departments, which faithfully respond to law enforcement calls but struggle to afford basic equipment.

Firefighters in Sullivan City handle three to five calls a month about corpses in the river, said Volunteer Fire Chief Rene “Cuate” Peña.

Unless the situation requires a boat, they normally remove corpses from the Rio Grande themselves, Peña said. That equipment, though, recently broke.

Peña said he plans to research the grant program and possibly submit an application, which could reimburse the city for repairs.

“Anything right now really helps out,” Peña said.

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