CHICAGO — The Chicago Fire Department's newest tool to battle high-rise fires was invented by one of its own, Capt. Michael Wielgat.
The 26-year veteran of the department has on his own time over the last eight years developed the device, a remote-controlled, periscopelike pipe that can extinguish high-rise fires from the floor below by spraying up to 625 gallons per minute through a window.
He calls it the "Hero Pipe."
"As the years went on, I kept investing more and more, and at one point I was so deep into it I just couldn't stop," said Wielgat, 49, from a bedroom inside the Near West Side fire station that he commands.
So far, Chicago has bought one pipe and New York has bought four. Both departments have deployed the devices this year.
And this month, Wielgat and a representative from the company that manufactures the pipe, Elkhart Brass, are traveling to Israel later this month.
The country wants a closer look.
"We were fortunate that they stumbled across this," said Eric Combs, Elkhart Brass's director of marketing.
Although the Hero Pipe is only designed for high-rise fires, "there's no product like [it]," Combs said. "This is insurance against that potentially extremely devastating fire."
Wielgat said officials in Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai and Mumbai, India, also have shown interest.
He said he first came up with the idea after witnessing as a firefighter the deadly 2003 fire in a Cook County office building at 69 W. Washington St. Then, about a year later, he saw another high-rise fire rip through the 29th floor of the LaSalle Bank building in the Loop.
The flames were out of reach of the department's ladder trucks, and he said firefighters had a hard time controlling the dangerous blazes in close quarters from inside the buildings.
So he started tinkering in his garage and built a prototype — then another, and another.
The single father of three children took out a second mortgage on his Beverly home to keep the project going.
"I honestly thought the project would be a six- or eight-month project, and I'd be done," he said. "It ended up being an eight-year process."
He said he hasn't seen a return on his investment yet, but is hopeful he will soon because of the device's potential to save lives and property.
During the LaSalle Bank building fire, he said, flames gradually shot out of more and more windows "until there was about eight windows burning." He said the fire that burned for 3½ hours "would have been out in the first 30 minutes" with the Hero Pipe.
Chicago Fire Department Lt. Ted Kramer said Wielgat's invention is known throughout the department's ranks.
"It gives us definitely a sense of pride that one of our own is able to do that," said the 38-year-old, who met Wielgat on his first assignment 17 years ago. "It's a tool that we can really stand behind because it's not some engineer in a lab that's creating this. It's a fireman who has real field experience."
New York's firefighters know of it as well.
"I've been in the fire department for over 20 years," said Capt. Mark Driscoll, who trains New York firefighters. "Guys have ideas all the time, [but] it’s very rare a guy takes his idea and an actual tool comes out of it."
But the $50,000 device is a tough sell to cash-strapped cities.
Chicago has its one Hero Pipe placed with the city's other high-rise firefighting gear at Wielgat's station. The gear is sent to every confirmed high-rise fire.
A lot of attention was brought to high-rise fire safety this year when Illinois Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis proposed refitting every high-rise building in the city with costly fire sprinklers. He quickly backed down from his proposal at the urging of high-rise dwellers and politicians.
"Most fires in high-rises, if you close the door, will burn themselves out," said Mark Nielsen, the Chicago Fire Department's assistant deputy fire commissioner, at a safety meeting with Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) and condo owners in October.
But when a door is left open, and wind fuels the fire from an open window, the fire could spread to hallways, he said.
He said neither New York nor Chicago has used the Hero Pipe on a fire outside of testing and training.
"I know one day it's going to put out a really bad fire, and that's going to be the happiest day of my life — 'cause I'm really going to see it doing its job and protecting firemen and saving lives," he said.