PHOTO - 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.