Local fire departments fighting fires with high-tech technology

We all hope it never happens to us — our home or property goes up in flames.

This is National Fire Prevention Week, and while the focus is on keeping fires from happening in the first place, some just can’t be prevented.

But in those cases, different types of high-tech gadgets can help fire fighters work more quickly and efficiently saving seconds and even minutes. That may not sound like a lot of time but it can actually make all the difference.

When fighting fires, one of a firefighter’s worst enemies can be the clock.

“Fires double every minute roughly,” said Lt. Wayne Nagy of the Onalaska Fire Department. “So, for us to get to the scene fast, and then once we get there, what’s the best approach to the building?”

Nagy was a part of the fire crew that responded to a house fire on the 900 block of Sixth Ave. North last Friday.

He said their mobile computer technology helped firefighters even before they arrived on scene — showing them the exact location of the house and where the working fire hydrants were.”

At that fire, just the way the wind was, you could not see the front of the building and we knew there was a hydrant on the other side,” said Nagy.

While part of the crew was working to fight the fire from the outside, crews also used technology to help on the inside.

When firefighters are working to rescue people out of a burning building, it’s like working in a pitch-black room, but with today technology and thermal cameras, there’s nothing they can’t see.

“Before thermal cameras we did a lot of damage,” said Nagy. “We would just start opening up walls. You would just guess, ‘I think this is where it is,’ and you’d start opening up the walls or the ceiling. Now with the thermal camera, I can just point and, ‘yup there it is.’ It’s faster.”


The La Crosse Fire Department also used this thermal imaging technology as well as the mobile computer technology to help crews fight two fires in the last two weeks — one on Miller Street and the other on the corner of East and Bennett Streets.

“When I started out everything was done by touch,” said Greg Temp, division chief of training for the La Crosse Fire Department.” You can’t see the hand in front of your face, and you’re just crawling and feeling and hoping that if there’s someone inside that you’d feel around and find them. We have cameras now that firefighters take in with them that allow them to scan the room to look for people who are trapped inside the building.”

Temp said this new technology comes in handy as they race against the clock.

“You have a limited amount of time to get out, and if you’re incapacitated, then we have a limited time to get in find you and bring you to the outside where it’s safe,” said Greg Temp, division chief of training for the La Crosse Fire Department. “So seconds are very important to us.”

But Temp said new technology doesn’t just come in compact-sized gadgets. It also comes in the protective gear they wear.

“Inside a burning building, temperatures can reach close to a couple of thousand degrees,” said Temp. “Our equipment isn’t that good that it can withstand that heat, but we’re able to approach 1,000 degrees with that equipment and it is able to protect us for short periods of time.”

Something new the Onalaska Fire Department has invested doesn’t have to do with putting out fires.

It’s a new sonar system firefighters can use in the event of a water rescue and recovery.

Fire chief, Don Dominick said this system can not only help search and rescue teams be more accurate when searching bodies of water, but it also helps crews stay safe while searching.

“What we’re looking to is to be as effective as we can when time comes, but also I’m looking at it as I’m being more selfish, and I’m very selfish and I’m always going to be that way, and I want these firefighters to go to home to their families,” said Dominick.

Both departments said for the future, they’d like to see some sort of device to track firefighters while they’re inside burning buildings to see where they are and if they need help.

Both also said they’re on the lookout for better radio systems for crews outside fighting fires to use communicate with crews inside fighting the fire.

The cause of the Onalaska house fire is still under investigation.

The causes for both La Crosse fires were linked to the kitchen.