Did you see a drone passing overhead? Don’t worry: The drone isn’t spying on you — it’s collecting information to prevent the next Westclox fire.

Jason Marvel owns a Streator company that’s working with our local fire chiefs. They’re using drones to collect fire data from buildings. Those drones are taking pictures, calculating measurements and identifying trouble spots to assist firefighters in putting out a blaze.

Firefighting is really a science. To put out a fire quickly, you need lots of data: air flow patterns, hydrant locations, elevations, square footage. Marvel wants to take all that and cram it into a database for firefighters to download. Press a button and, boom, all that data is on your phone.

“People come out of their houses, see the drones and want to know what we’re doing,” said Marvel, president of Flow MSP. “We’re using drones to capture information about structures and help firefighters plan properly and make those structures safer in the event of a fire.

“This isn’t about people. This isn’t about surveillance. This is about capturing information about structures.”

It wasn’t all Marvel’s idea. He didn’t sit up in his bed one night and yell, “Eureka.” He’d spent years working with local fire companies attached to MABAS 25. Together, 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.

“It started to really crystallize for us eight to 12 months ago when we ran a couple of experiments with drones and came up with algorithms to calculate fire data,” Marvel said. “There were a lot of little breakthroughs to make this happen.”

Drones will buzz across the entire Illinois Valley. Marvel will have the drones down before Christmas, ensuring there’s no collision with Santa’s sleigh.

Nobody else in Illinois is doing this. Once the project is complete, our fire chiefs expect to get calls — lots of calls — from peers scattered from Chicago to Little Egypt, all asking, “How can we pre-plan with drones?”

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