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‘Knowledge is power.’

Firefighters couldn’t save Witczak Bros., but an app may have saved them

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Did a firefighting technology save lives at the Witczak Bros. fire? “Potentially, yes,” said Jason Marvel, who developed the database and crammed it with months’ of firefighting data. Marvel, seen here at the remains of the Peru business, oversaw a pre-plan fire survey of commercial structures across the Illinois Valley and the Witczak profile clearly showed the roof would give. Peru fire chief Jeff King said the arched roof was a “fireman killer” and the app signaled to not send any firefighters inside.

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.

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Firefighters were disappointed they couldn’t save the Witczak Bros. building, but it wasn’t for lack of trying and it wasn’t for lack of information. The structure had been “pre-planned” for fire and the firefighting data was available to all personnel on scene.

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.

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While firefighters couldn’t save the Witczak Bros. building, the Dec. 31 fire proved to an important test case for a pre-planning effort done with aerial drones. Streator businessman Jason Marvel (from left), Utica fire chief of staff Ed Rogers, Peru chief Jeff King and La Salle chief Andy Bacidore used drones in autumn 2017 to do aerial scans of commercial structures and construct a database containing every bit of fire data needed to pre-plan a blaze. The Witczak fire proved it works.

“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.

Late in 2016, Marvel and the chiefs experimented with drones and the developed algorithms to calculate fire data.

“There were a lot of little breakthroughs to make this happen,” he recalled.

The project went into high gear in fall 2017. Then, drones were flown across the Illinois Valley with a focus on downtown areas. Marvel emphasized that he and the chiefs were by no means uninterested in homes and subdivisions; but scientifically speaking, residential structures are easy to fight. Not so with tall and unique buildings constructed at the turn of the 20th century or earlier.

“A lot of it is the pure size of a structure,” explained La Salle fire chief Andy Bacidore. “With a house you can make a quick walk-around and know what to do. With a building like L-P, it takes a lot longer to assess the building. A bird’s-eye view really helps.”

It was an innovative project, and Marvel and the MABAS 25 partners said in 2017 that no one else in Illinois was doing that. No longer: A MABAS unit comprised of southside communities (Alsip, Blue Island) signed on as a group. Eighteen months after Marvel sent up his first drone, the technology is available to tens of thousands of firefighters.

“We’ve exploded,” he said.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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