California Firefighter Wins TV Fame, $1Million

Updated: 08-07-2007 04:13:49 PM

Firehouse.Com News

A California construction worker turned firefighter can now add inventor and millionaire to his resume.

Greg Chavez, a firefighter from Camarillo, Cal., won $1 million last week on ABC's American Inventor 2 for his unique Christmas tree fire extinguishment system.

While watching the evening news during the holiday season, he saw a father carrying the body of his lifeless son. The look on the distraught mother's face is something he'll never forget.

The boy died in a fire blamed on a Christmas tree. "It really hit me. I thought about what I could do to stop that from happening," he said.

That image he saw many years ago kept him going.

Chavez said he used his knowledge of hydraulics as he worked on his project. "I spent many, many years in my garage. I studied fire behavior, and relied on my work on sprinklers. I didn't tell many people about what I was doing."

A small container of water disguised as a wrapped gift is placed under the tree. A hose snakes its way up to an angel. In the event of a fire, the device triggers - like a sprinkler.

The father of six said his wife, Rozanne, never doubted him. "She was behind me all the way, and picked up the slack so I could tinker in the garage."

Chavez said when he gets an idea, he isn't one to back down - no matter how long it takes.

At 40, he realized his boyhood dream of becoming a firefighter. "I was the oldest rookie in the academy. I was up against 20-year-olds, and it was a grueling 16 weeks."

The firefighter said he shied away from telling his co-workers in the Camarillo Fire Department what he doing. Finally, last Christmas the time was ripe.

"We had a tree up in the station. We took it outside, and burned it. My device failed miserably. I had to test different configurations."

The word was out, and Camarillo firefighters and others brought their trees. "Everyone was behind me. We burned a lot of trees during that trial and error"

Eventually, he came up with the right dynamics. "What I also had to do was convince people that a Christmas tree fire is a Class A fire, not electrical."

Chavez said when he won a spot on the show, the network would not film the segment at his fire department.

"The City of Orange Fire Department welcomed me with open arms. It was just awesome. They showed me so much support. I can't thank them enough."

When ABC officials informed the fire department they could charge Chavez, they declined. They probably could have asked for reimbursement for use of the facilities, personnel and equipment.

"I think they (ABC) learned something about how close firefighters are. They said they were happy to help one of their own. I made some good friends over there."

Chavez wore turnout gear to demonstrate and explain his invention, but the initials of the department on his turnout coat were blacked out.

Standing with two other finalists waiting for the winner to be announced, Chavez said it felt like an eternity. "When they said it was me, it was so incredible to have all my kids and my wife run out so I could hug each of them."

All those lonely hours in the garage had paid off - in a big way.

His plans for the $1 million include paying off debt, and setting up college funds for his children. "Now, I won't have to work so much overtime."

Chavez is on leave right now from the fire department, while he works to get his project going. "I'm missing (a busy) fire season right now. But, it's important that I see this through. I believe it will have an impact on people and save lives."

Chavez was speechless in front of the live audience when First Alert president and CEO Tom Russo told him that his company was willing to help market the Guardian Angel.

"I was hoping for First Alert," the stunned firefighter said. "I can't believe it."

His comments drew laughter.

Chavez reflected: "It's been an amazing journey."$55842

Firefighter Greg Chavez