(Sentinel & Enterprise)
SIGHT THROUGH THE SMOKE: Lowell firefighter Anthony Cronk wears the Thermal on Demand facemask and imaging system developed by his friend, Barry Lavoie, a BAE Systems engineer and Lowell native. They want to see the prototype go into production.
(SUN / JOHN LOVE)
"You won't find one firefighter who will say they can't benefit from this technology today," Barry Lavoie, left, a BAE Systems engineer, said of the Thermal on Demand facemask he developed. Lowell firefighter Anthony Cronk looks on at the city's Branch Street fire station.
(SUN / JOHN LOVE)
Inside a burning building, the smoke often gets so thick and oppressive that firefighters can't see their hands if they wave them in front of their facemasks.
The roiling black clouds obscure everything: staircases, chairs, an unconscious person, even the flames - burning at more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit - on the other side of the room.
"It's an intense situation that's basically out of your control, but you have to be able to control it," said Anthony Cronk, a Lowell firefighter. "It's adrenalinepumping."
Nationwide, an average of 36 firefighters die every year because they become lost in a burning building, get trapped, fall, or are caught in a collapse, according to the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health. Hundreds more firefighter and civilian deaths can be linked directly or indirectly to the blind conditions in which firefighters must operate.
Barry Lavoie, an engineer at BAE Systems and Lowell native, says he can give them the gift of sight.
His invention, Thermal on Demand, is a facemask and imaging system that looks like a prop from a cyborg movie. A periscopic camera juts out from a transparent lens over the right eye and two ventilators flank a hole over the mouth, where an oxygen tube can connect.
Its three thermal-imaging settings allow firefighters to clearly see the outlines of obstacles in pitch-black settings. Warm objects, such as a body or flames, appear as ghostly white figures.
Lavoie began developing his prototype in 2011 and has crisscrossed the country, demonstrating Thermal on Demand for fire departments and the military.
"They all want this capability, every boot on the ground," he said. "You won't find one firefighter who will say they can't benefit from this technology today."
In interviews, firefighters offered rave reviews:
"I liked everything about it and I think it's going to be the wave of the future," said Patrick Cleary, vice president of Chicago's firefighters union.
"The product has the potential to revolutionize firefighting," Dracut Deputy Fire Chief Richard Patterson said.
"I was impressed with it, whether or not it will ever be affordable for the fire department is another story, but if he could get it that far it would be a great benefit to the fire department," said Battalion Chief Brian Fink, of the New York Fire Department. "What it gives us is vision when there is none."
The problem, however, is that Thermal on Demand is not currently available for purchase. Lavoie said the facemasks have been ready for mass production and use since 2012, but to date, BAE Systems, which owns the patent, has not put them on the market.
A BAE Systems spokesman declined to answer questions about the lengthy development process, but said the company is working on Thermal on Demand.
"Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has sponsored BAE Systems to update the Thermal on Demand (TOD) based on feedback from user evaluations and certification requirements, this important work is underway," Paul Roberts, the spokesman, said in a statement.
Currently, there are only two Thermal on Demand masks in operation. Cronk has one, and his lieutenant the other.
"I gave these two to these guys after the two Boston firefighters were killed," Lavoie said, referring to Lt. Edward J. Walsh Jr. and firefighter Michael R. Kennedy, of the Boston Fire Department, who died in March fighting a nine-alarm blaze in the Back Bay neighborhood. "I mean, I can't sleep at night. It's frustrating."
Lavoie and Cronk grew up together in Lowell. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Cronk enlisted in the Navy, where he served as a firefighter on an aircraft carrier. Lavoie, whose family persuaded him not to enlist, carried the memory of the twin towers burning as he developed military-grade equipment.
In 2011, the pair reunited. When Cronk learned that Lavoie was an engineer with experience in thermal imaging, he presented him with the firefighters' problem.
The thermal-imaging devices that most departments use today are hand-held and cumbersome, and cost between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. Few cities can afford to supply more than one firefighter per rescue crew with an imaging device, which means that the other firefighters work blind as they are directed by a superior who is scanning the environment on a tiny screen.
"The downside to them is it ties up one of your hands," said Fink, the New York battalion chief. "We find a victim, OK, now what do you do? You put it down to drag the victim out and now you've lost your visual ability." Early in the morning of March 26, 2011, not long after Cronk and Lavoie first discussed a hands-free thermal imager, Cronk and his team responded to a fire at 74 Lincoln St.
Everyone had escaped except an elderly woman trapped in a bathroom. Through the smoke, Cronk was able to find her. He picked her up and began making his way to the exit, through a miasma of smoke.
The opening he thought was the doorway turned out to be the entrance to a staircase, and Cronk and his charge went tumbling down the steps.
Amid the confusion, Cronk, Lt. Ryan Carvalho, and Lt. Charlie Savard were able to carry the woman out of the building and she survived.
All three firefighters received a meritorious service award for their actions, but the next day, as Cronk sat down to breakfast with Lavoie, talk of a better thermal-imaging system, that all firefighters could use, became deadly serious.
"(Lavoie) made a promise to me that he was going to continue to work on this until everyone has one, and it's been that way," Cronk said.
There are about a dozen TOD prototypes in existence, and Lavoie has built them all by hand. During a recent conversation at the Branch Street fire station, he said that if the patent was his alone he would already be building the facemasks and handing them out to any firefighter who came calling.
Despite skepticism from some fire officials and industry experts, Lavoie is confident that the Thermal on Demand masks could be produced and sold at a price that would make them accessible to every firefighter across the country.
"The holy grail for the fire services is that every mask has (thermal imaging) integrated into it," he said.
By Todd Feathers / lowellsun.com