NEWSTRIBUNE – Jan 21, 2019 – Jeff King returned to Peru’s fire station on Dec. 31 a bit conflicted.
King had led firefighters to the scene of the Witczak Bros. building and they had been unable to save it. The building was a total loss.
But the call could have ended more unhappily. While a responding fire chief sustained minor injury getting to the scene, nobody was burned or hurt while putting out the fire. And credit for that goes, in part, to a project King and other chiefs helped launch in back in 2017.
Then, fire companies and a Streator businessman named Jason Marvel flew drones over “targeted structures” in the Illinois Valley to collect fire data. Firefighting is a science with many variables: air flow patterns, hydrant locations, elevations, square footage. Marvel’s proposal was to cram all needed figures into a “cloud” available to all local firefighters through their smart phones.
Data in hand, Marvel, King and other chiefs held their breath waiting (certainly not hoping) for one of the many targeted structures to go up. Only with a test case could they know if Marvel’s technology would pass the test.
It did. Witczak Bros. had been “pre-planned” — that is, mapped out and studied for a potential fire — with an aerial drone and the data were readily available when the crews arrived. Every first-responder on scene could pull up the data using their smart phones. And the data were clear: The building had been well-constructed and was sound, but the arched roof was a type prone to collapse when fully engulfed.
“It’s a known fireman-killer,” King said of the design.
Were lives saved that day?
“Potentially, yes,” said Marvel, who owns the Streator company, Flow MSP, that mapped out the Witczak structure. “The good thing about it is we won’t know because nothing bad happened (at the scene).”
It was, in fact, worth it just to have had information on the Witczak roof. King said he and his crew were familiar with Witczak Bros. and knew not to go charging inside.
Crews responding from other communities couldn’t have known that and might, given the wrong circumstances, have entered at great peril. Marvel’s pre-planning ensured that everyone had access to the same life-saving fire data.
“It’s horrible they lost the building — it’s absolutely terrible,” said Ed Rogers, chief of staff for the Utica Fire Protection District and president of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System division 25. “But having that knowledge the moment we arrived — and going into a defensive mode — ensured that nobody got hurt (at the scene). Knowledge is power.”
King said Witczak Bros. also demonstrated the limits of Peru’s hydrant capacity.
“A lot of people on social media said we were running out of water — we weren’t,” King explained.
“We were taxing our water system because we were at one point pumping 3,000 gallons per minute, and that’s as much as we could pump. We couldn’t pump any more if we wanted to.”
That information has now been updated into Marvel’s cloud. It is at the ready for every crew in the Illinois Valley the next time a fire call goes out.
“We’re never done — we’re always improving and we’re always collecting new and interesting data — but this (Witczak) was certainly a milestone,” Marvel said.
The project was long in the making. Marvel had spent years working with local fire companies attached to MABAS 25. Collectively, they’d looked for better ways to pre-plan — always a priority, more so after Westclox went up in 2012 — and they’d toyed with using satellites to do building surveys.