STC’s newest bulldozer training to help firefighters combat wildfires
South Texas College has partnered with emergency experts and county officials to develop a Heavy Equipment Operator Course with a Bulldozer Emphasis for firefighting personnel.
In response to a rising concern of wildfires in Starr County, South Texas College has partnered with emergency experts and county officials to develop a Heavy Equipment Operator course with a Bulldozer emphasis for firefighting personnel.
“Earlier this year, STC participated in several meetings with Starr County firefighters and Emergency Management personnel, along with representatives of the Border Pacific Railroad, to discuss how to support training,” said STC Vice President of Information Services, Planning, Performance and Strategic Initiatives David Plummer, Ed.D. “One of the most needed areas identified was the lack of available bulldozer operators that could assist with removing vegetation to stop the spread of wildfires.”
Fourteen firefighters from across the county have recently completed the brand-new course, offered at STC’s Starr County campus, ensuring that personnel didn’t have to travel far for training.
“With the drought conditions we have experienced over the last couple of years, we have witnessed large grass fires, ranging from 500 to 1,000 acres,” said Deputy Fire Chief for Starr County Precinct 4 Fire Department Matthew Piper. “Normally we have to contact outside agencies from San Antonio, Edinburg or the Texas A&M Forest Service to bring this type of machinery and expertise to us, but now with this training, we can start creating a strike team of in-house trained firefighters and rely on the county’s resources.”
According to statistics from Risk Factor, an online tool that makes it easy to understand risks from a changing environment, due to vast vegetation and extreme weather, 96% of all properties in the county are at risk of being affected by wildfires over the next 30 years.
The Texas A&M Forest Service shows that there are currently 71 counties with burn bans in place, indicating the widespread nature of the wildfire risk in the state.
Earlier this year, STC participated in several meetings with Starr County firefighters and Emergency Management personnel, along with representatives of the Border Pacific Railroad, to discuss how to support training. One of the most needed areas identified was the lack of available bulldozer operators that could assist with removing vegetation to stop the spread of wildfires.
Piper explained how the operation of a bulldozer helps clear away plants and vegetation along a designated path, creating a gap that acts as a barrier against an advancing fire, serving as a break in the fuel that the fire needs to keep burning.
“What firebreaks do is create a gap of only dirt, no vegetation, and that will eventually extinguish a fire because dirt can’t burn. Another tactic we use is back burning; we burn from the fire line so it meets the original fire and dies up,” he said. “Water is a challenge in rural areas with few hydrants, so these tactics are crucial to stopping the spread.”
Taught by a contracted, certified local instructor Evelio Peña, STC’s18-hour Bulldozer course helps fire personnel get familiarized with the operations of a bulldozer, including lessons on routine maintenance and inspection, general safety parameters, use of personal protective equipment and applicable laws.
The training further encompasses blade positioning and angle, material spreading, ground leveling, excavation and firebreaks.
When the training is successfully completed, students become certified in bulldozer operations and add to their arsenal of tools a credential that makes them marketable in the field.
The pilot program was a collaboration with Starr County Commissioner for Precinct 1 Jose “Kiko” Perez, who provided the heavy machinery for training, and the STC Foundation that covered the cost of tuition and fees. Other jurisdictions, including the cities of Zapata and Hidalgo have also expressed interest in taking the course.
“I’m truly grateful to STC and everybody involved for the opportunity to take this class at no charge, it’s an amazing opportunity for us to learn and grow our skills,” Piper said. “One thing I love about the fire service is that is very dynamic, it’s always changing. Even after eight years, there’s always something new to learn.”
For more information on public safety training at STC visit southtexascollege.edu/cpit/public-safety-training.html or call 956-872-4203.