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January 20, 2020
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The fire department’s only currently licensed drone operator, Essex Fire Marshal John Planas explains that gear like the drone and the recently approved new fireboat can make a major difference in rescues and fire suppression. Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

The fire department’s only currently licensed drone operator, Essex Fire Marshal John Planas explains that gear like the drone and the recently approved new fireboat can make a major difference in rescues and fire suppression. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

John Planas: Fired Up About Safety

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John Planas, the Essex fire marshal, had some very good news last week. After more than six years of trying, the town has just gotten a port security grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of some $227,000 for a new fireboat. The fire department will have to contribute another $92,000 to the project.

The port security program grants funds to support management of transportation risks with a view toward national security and preparedness.

“That means we are going to get a $370,000 boat for $92,000,” John says. “I worked very hard on gathering statistics of the region and performing an evaluation on the fire department’s specific needs. All of this information and widespread support through letters helped us get this much-needed grant.”

The new fireboat, scheduled to be completed next year, will assist Essex and other Connecticut River Valley and Long Island Sound areas. Deputy Chief Chris Going and Captain Doug Harrays from the Essex Fire Engine Company #1 and John are currently designing the boat. It is to be a 28-foot metal craft, designed specifically as a fire-fighting boat.

“It will be a regional asset,” John explains.

The new boat will have infrared technology to register heat signals that can locate underwater objects, like boats that have sunk or even lost swimmers. It will also have a powerful pump system, 1,500 gallons per minute, that can use river water to put out fires in properties along the shore as well as on islands in the river. Though some other towns have fireboats, none will have the state-of-the-art instruments planned for the new Essex fireboat.

Currently the Essex fireboat is a 1994 Privateer work boat.

“It was never designed as a fire boat and it has outlived its useful life,” John says.

Though the new fireboat will not yet be ready, there is a chance for the general public to see the firefighting equipment, including the inside of a life-saving helicopter, on Sunday, Sept. 29 from noon to 3 p.m. at the second annual Community Day at the Essex Firehouse on Route 154, Saybrook Road. The program also includes demonstrations of life-saving techniques as well as free hot dogs and chips. Visitors of all ages are welcome.

John always has fire safety on his mind. The fire marshal is charged with, among other things, inspecting multi-family dwellings, schools, and other public spaces as well as restaurants on a regular schedule to ensure that they come up to code and have required equipment like smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. John also reviews plans for new buildings, to make sure they will not violate existing codes.

Knowing the building the plans, he points out, also gives the fire marshal and the town’s fire department familiarity with the layout should a fire occur.

The regular inspections give him a chance to do one of the things he likes best: meeting the public.

“I love to meet people and explain what we do; it’s public service, an investment of my time to talk to people. I’d rather be proactive than reactive,” he says.

In addition to his other duties, John is currently the only one in Essex with the proper certification to fly the town’s two new drones; five of the town firefighters are currently taking the course to become certified. One drone is in John’s office at his office in town hall; the other belongs to the fire department. Essex Rotary contributed funds to the purchase of the fire department’s drone, a more technically advanced model than the first drone.

John notes that the newer drone is equipped with infrared technology allowing the pilot to conduct wide area searches in total darkness. It also will be able to connect directly with the new fireboat.

“This technology can detect anything that gives off heat, for example a human body. If we had to search for a victim in the Connecticut River, this drone could be launched in as little as five minutes and start a large area search before any other resources respond,” he points out. “Both drones have already been utilized to assist with fire investigations providing important photos from an aerial view.”

Recently, John showed a visitor the drone he keeps in his office.

“Looks like a small Millenium Falcon,” he says, in a reference to the space craft that was a part of the Star Wars saga.

John is always fighting fires. When not on regular duty in Essex, he is a career firefighter and paramedic in Guilford, where, in addition he is the deputy fire marshal. In addition to the grant just obtained for Essex, John has successfully written four grants since 2015 under FEMA’s port security program for the Guilford Fire Department.

He’s able hold positions in both Essex and Guilford because of what he describes as the Guilford Fire Department’s unique schedule: 24 hours straight on duty and then 72 hours off.

“I wish I knew more about what sleep was,” he jokes.

John has a deputy in Essex, Paul Campi, a retired fire marshal, who takes on the responsibilities when he is not here.

Growing up in Fairfield County, John volunteered for the Southport Fire Department when he was 17, following in the footsteps of his father.

“I was attracted to it when I saw how much people cared about what they were doing,” he says. “I wanted to be part of it.”

In fact, he did advanced firefighter training, wanting to be more involved.

Still, John’s career went in a different direction when he graduated from high school. He worked as an airplane mechanic and a Mercedes Benz technician before a job testing fire safety equipment rekindled his enthusiasm for firefighting.

He studied fire science and technology at the University of New Haven and also took the classes and examinations necessary to qualify as a paramedic. For some years he ran his own company for emergency medical technician (EMT) training but has since given that up.

“It took a lot of time from home and family,” he says.

There was no better student of the EMT procedures he taught, according to John than his young daughter, Kassidy, now 16.

“I was amazed at all the things she picked up,” he says.

John says people should always be mindful of fire safety, and part of that awareness is always having working carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

“We all sometimes become complacent and forget to check these live-saving devices,” he says. “If you have questions or concerns about your carbon monoxide or smoke detectors, feel free to contact the Fire Marshal’s Office and I would be happy to come out and check the devices for you. Getting out to talk to the citizens is a public service I enjoy doing.”

Second Annual Community Day

Essex Fire Station #1 hosts the second annual Community Day on Sunday, Sept. 29 from noon to 3 p.m. at the Essex Firehouse on Route 154, Saybrook Road. The event will feature firefighting equipment and demonstrations; all ages are welcome.


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