Byline: John Raimondi, Product Line Manager MSA, Pittsburgh

Firefighting has witnessed many advances over the years, from the invention of chemical fire extinguishers in the 19th century to the advent of breathing apparatus in the 1930s. In the past several years, thermal imaging technology has been one of the fastest growing technologies in the fire service.

Once considered too costly to be practical, significant reductions in price within the past few years have made thermal imagers available to departments of all sizes. In addition, several new cameras have been introduced that are smaller in size and weight than those of earlier generations.

In the late 1990s, a typical thermal imaging camera weighed between five and eight pounds and cost as much as $25,000. Today, many models weigh under three pounds and cost half the list price of their predecessors. What this means to the fire service is that more cameras are much more likely to be carried and used during nearly every call – fire and otherwise.

A study in the basics

Thermal imaging cameras are used in a wide range of fire service applications including at structural fires; during search-and-rescue missions to help find missing persons, survey night scenes and locate mass-casualty victims; and as a training tool for firefighters and first responders. Thermal imaging cameras can not only help save lives but can reduce property damage as well, as fires can be fought more quickly and more efficiently.

The state of Washington recently examined the impact of thermal imaging technology in a variety of hazardous environments. The nine-month study, titled “Thermal Imaging – Reducing Your Exposure,” found that the use of thermal imaging technology reduces the time of exposure by being another “set of eyes” in an otherwise non-visible environment.

The study cautions that although the thermal imaging camera can dramatically reduce search times, the tool can be dangerous without proper training, recommending the use of conventional orientation methods and safety practices, such as following a hose line, wall searches or a safety line.

“Untrained users have a tendency to stand up and start walking because they now have more visibility,” says Thad Dahl, battalion chief and training officer for Vashion Island (Wash.) Fire & Rescue. “When used in navigation, I like to use a TIC like a hiker uses a compass – as a reference tool. If that hiker is only looking at the compass and ignoring his surroundings, he’ll get into trouble in a hurry.”

The study concluded that thermal imaging cameras enable the user to identify hazards that would be hard to locate using conventional methods. The study recommends that thermal imaging devices be used “in addition to established standard tools for tactical operations on fire and rescue calls to reduce emergency response personnel exposure time in hazardous environments.” The study went on to say that “although thermal imaging technology is a very useful and beneficial tool, it’s not meant to replace the basic procedures and policies currently in practice in fire and rescue work.”

Making the case for infrared

Many fire chiefs wrestle with the decision of whether a thermal imager will be useful to their departments. However, it’s in real-world incidents that infrared will have to prove its mettle.

On July 25, the Titusville (Pa.) Fire Department was dispatched to investigate smoke at a 2H-story, wood-framed florist shop. A two-person crew advanced a 1 [superscript]i -inch hose line to the front door and forcibly entered the structure.

Shortly after the crew’s arrival, Chief Joe Crotty conducted a full size-up of the building and found heavy smoke discharging from virtually every part of the structure. In addition to the volume of smoke, a great deal of radiant heat was emitting from the building, though no flames were apparent. Visibility was zero, and this had all the makings of a stage-three fire with an imminent back draft. As crews arrived on location, ventilation teams and additional hose lines were deployed.

Five minutes into operations, the scene on the fireground showed little improvement. The crew on the first floor stated that heat conditions were worsening, the floor was starting to heat up, and they had what appeared to be a heavy body of fire in the rear of the store. The second floor crew reported rapidly deteriorating conditions and fire extension into the rear rooms of the second floor. Both crews, although aggressively attacking the fire with the support of ventilation, were not making any appreciable headway.

About this time one of the interior crewmembers who had just exited the structure asked if another line could be stretched to back up the initial crews. While talking to this firefighter, Crotty noted a subtle shift in the front narrow stile glass and aluminum door frame. The firefighter had a thermal imager with him, so Crotty used it to conduct a very quick two-sided scan of the building’s exterior. Through the camera, he noted that the entire building was “white hot.”

“That was enough for me,” Crotty says. “Given the radio reports from the interior, what I perceived to be a slight shift in the door frame and the view with the TIC, I ordered all interior crews out of the structure and shifted into a defensive/exposure-control mode. The view through the TIC caused me to abandon offensive operations a little quicker than I had in similar situations in years past without the benefit of thermal imagery.”

Less than two minutes after reverting to a defensive mode, firefighters saw and heard three collapses in the first floor of the occupancy. After another couple of minutes, the roof collapsed into the second floor.

“We had the most precious resources that any fire department has – our firefighters – narrowly escape from the building,” Crotty says.

Using your TIC every day

But use of thermal imaging cameras isn’t limited to fighting fires. In fact, TICS have become an integral tool used in a variety of applications. Plus, by using a thermal imaging camera in non-fire applications, users can get more from their investment and gain valuable experience in using the camera.

For instance, cameras can be extremely useful in traffic accidents, helping to locate victims who have been ejected from the vehicle or who have become disoriented and wandered clear of the scene. In addition to possibly following a blood trail, the camera can be used to help verify the total number of occupants of the vehicle at the time of the accident. By scanning the seats of the vehicle for remaining heat patterns, responders can determine whether all victims have been accounted for.

In addition, thermal imaging cameras can help identify skid marks or disruption of roadside vegetation, locating vehicles that have left the road surface; determine fire origin; and trace accelerant residue patterns. By deploying a thermal imaging camera early at an accident scene, there is less chance that remaining thermal signatures will dissipate.

Thermal imagers also can aid in water navigation and search, as well as wildland firefighting. They even help hazmat crews locate dangerous materials by helping to identify the presence of hazardous liquids.

Cameras also can be used during searches for missing persons, including lost children, Alzheimer’s patients or other institutional patients who might go missing. Imagers can be effective in these situations in both night scenes and daytime operations by using a sun shroud. Your search also can be aided dramatically by deploying an aerial ladder to give a bird’s eye view of the scene. Depending on the situation and the surroundings, more ground may be covered more quickly by elevating the camera’s user.

No one knows for sure what the future of thermal imaging technology holds. What is certain, however, is that thermal imaging manufacturers will continue to make smaller, lighter and less expensive units that will be available to more firefighters than ever before.

As continued improvements are made to the technology, fire departments are encouraged to test and evaluate this product. Do your homework and train your firefighters, then decide if it’s right for your department.

John Raimondi is the thermal imaging camera product line manager for MSA, a Pittsburgh-based company.

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