Cedar Park and Leander spend thousands on new gear

Labor Day marks one year since wildfires damaged nearly 2,000 homes throughout Texas, including more than two dozen homes in Leander between Aug. 15 and Sept. 6. Fire departments crossed city and county lines to assist with rescues.

In the past year, the Leander and Cedar Park fire departments sought new ways to battle wildfires with advanced training and equipment. Leander Fire Chief Bill Gardner said a new statewide initiative trains firefighters for cross-county emergencies.

"[The program] takes a firefighter, and it provides them the necessary training to go help someone in a different location, different environment, different command structure. That person knows that they've been trained and qualified," Gardner said.

Most of Gardner's crew—comprising 50 percent career firefighters and 50 percent volunteers—have completed the first level of wildland fire training, he said. In Cedar Park, interim Fire Chief James Mallinger said his team has had the same training as part of a streamlined countywide education program.

Since the 2011 wildfires, both fire departments also purchased new, lightweight equipment designed specifically for battling outdoor blazes. Unlike the new gear, traditional firefighting uniforms have attached oxygen tanks and are intended for structure fires in which there is a high risk of falling debris.

"When a firefighter wears a structural firefighting helmet for a fire, it's usually for a few hours. A wildland helmet is worn for up to 14–18 hours during a deployment, so weight becomes a factor," Gardner said. "With the wildland equipment being lighter, there's less wear and tear, less exhaustion and less opportunity for mistakes. These helmets are also worn with a hot shield, which is designed to filter out embers, carbon, hot gases and particles that come from the wildland fires."

The Leander Fire Department spent about $12,000 on new gear, half of which was raised at its annual fall fundraiser. The Cedar Park Fire Department received a $20,000 grant from Firehouse Subs and spent an additional $20,000 in budgeted funds to purchase new wildland equipment. Mallinger said the grant will allow CPFD to get exactly what it needs, including new backpacks for wildland firefighters deployed for many hours at a time.

"Before, all we could carry was a little water and an emergency shelter," Mallinger said. "The new packs have a 100-ounce reservoir with the emergency shelter on the bottom, and they can have room for safety glasses, an extra shirt and some snacks."

The new equipment in Cedar Park also includes lightweight shirts and pants, masks and wildland helmets.