Family helps firefighters to see through smoke

April 09, 1997


Staff Writer, Waynesboro

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Michael Bulka's successful fund-raising effort to buy a device that would help firefighters see through smoke almost went up in smoke after months of door-to-door campaigning.

Bulka, his wife, Helen, sons Michael Ray, 10, and Brandon, 5, all of Chambersburg, made up the team that embarked on an enthusiastic campaign last May to purchase a $16,000 thermal imaging camera. The family was able to give the device to Franklin Fire Company officials last week, but not without first blindly navigating through a dense smoke generated by a community that was reluctant to give.

"It's been a tough road," Bulka said. "When I initially set out to do this, I thought the community would give."


Fund raising is no stranger to Bulka, who in the past led a water drive at Letterkenny Army Depot, where he's worked for 20 years, that resulted in over 9,000 gallons donated to the Midwest during the floods. The Bulkas also volunteer to collect and distribute toys to needy children at Christmas.

So when the family viewed a television program about the thermal imaging camera, the 4 1/2-pound battery-operated unit that detects heat in smoke-filled buildings, Bulka said he immediately thought it was something the fire company needed.

"These people risk their lives to save others," Bulka said, who grew up with several Franklin firefighters, though he's not a member of the fire company himself. "Franklin gives a lot to the community and we thought the community would want to give something back."

Using the camera in a smoke-filled room, where zero visibility is normal, people appear white against a black background. In a burning room with intense heat, bodies will show up black against white. The camera will also detect heat in a wall, beneath floors and inside chimneys.

"It's probably one of the most innovative items in fire science in the last 10 years," said Fire Chief Maynard "Ink" Burkett, who explained that with the camera, firefighters can now quickly scan a smoke-filled room for bodies where normally they have to crawl on their hands and knees and rely on sense of touch to find them. "I think it'll be a big asset to us."

At the start of the campaign, Bulka, with his sons tagging along, hit the streets of Chambersburg every day after work and on weekends soliciting funds mostly from businesses.

Once word got around and some businesses started donating, Bulka said he thought the campaign would take off from there.

But business owners and individuals repeatedly turned them down, telling them they'd donated to another cause or couldn't afford it.

"I pushed it hard the first couple of months," Bulka said. "But I was getting pretty frustrated."

Besides knocking on doors, the Bulka's organized several fund raisers. Bulka also researched possible grants, gave presentations to civic and professional groups, and taped public information segments on a local radio station.

"We literally pleaded with the public," Bulka said. "But it got to the point that it wasn't doing any good and I was running out of resources."

Bulka's determination was renewed at one point during the campaign when he tried out the camera for himself during one of the fire company's supervised drills.

The experience of entering a structure filled with smoke and having to rely on sense of touch to find bodies was enough to convince Bulka the effort was worth it.

"After I came out of that house I said, `We will have one of these things,' " Bulka said.

The fund-raising goal was reached last week when Greene Township supervisors wrote a check for $10,000, which, added to the Bulka's total of $7,300, was enough to purchase the camera.

"I felt like I was carrying a baby and giving it up when I handed it over to the fire company," Bulka said.

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