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October 11, 2018

Take a moment and picture this. It’s 2:30 a.m. and you’re the first responders on site to an active, blazing fire at a multi-unit apartment complex. You have no idea how many people are inside and can only assume that since it’s the middle of the night, there are many lives at stake.

While a team of firefighters must work to combat the blaze, others must perform search and rescue operations swiftly, extracting as many people (and likely pets) as possible while smoke billows all around them. In this moment you must work smarter, not harder. This is where a TIC – thermal imaging camera – becomes an important tool to have in your arsenal.

Thermal imaging cameras, in the most basic terms, allow the user to see through barriers such as smoke and weather elements to detect emitted heat energy such as warm bodies, changes in liquids, and fires within structural walls.

These cameras consist of five components: an optic system, detector, amplifier, signal processing and display. When combined, they produce a real-time, infrared radiation output that helps detect areas of heat.

Typically, the camera display produces an image that shows anything that has the same temperature as the same color. They typically use a grayscale coloring for anything that is considered a “normal” temperature, and then different colors to highlight potentially dangerous and hot areas.

Note that looking through a TIC lens is not the same as looking through a regular camera. Objects will not be clearly visible, and you’ll definitely experience variances in depth perception. Also, while thermal imaging cameras may be used at night, they do not provide night vision capabilities. Their sole purpose is to detect changes in heat.

As with many firefighting tools, basic standards must be met to ensure that these cameras meet the design, performance, testing and certification requirements set forth by the National Fire Protection Association. For more details, see NFPA 1801 Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service Scope.

Alternative Uses for TICs

Upon arrival on the scene of a fire, there may be a firefighter whose sole purpose is to assess the scene and the structure using a TIC. This is done by walking the exterior of the building to determine where the fire is located and where it may be spreading. This important step is crucial in directing your team to the right location to put out the blaze as fast as possible and mitigate the level of damage.

One of the last phases in firefighting is called overhaul. This happens after search and rescue is complete and is when the team of firefighters opens walls, ceilings and other partitions to check for hidden fires. TICs aid in this effort so that the team can quickly detect the hotspots in a structure, and so firefighters aren’t literally demolishing every standing wall that is left.

While it may seem obvious that TICs are beneficial during typical firefighting duties, it’s also worth pointing out the many other ways these cameras can provide lifesaving support.

Outdoor Search and Rescue

There are many instances when firefighters are called to a scene to help perform search and rescue missions. Whether you’re searching in the woods where there could be heavy foliage, or deep in the country where cornfields abound, TICs are extremely helpful to aid in a swift rescue.

Because these cameras can permeate through barriers such as fog, snow, and rain, users can quickly detect differences in temperature and are able to search large areas at a faster speed. Additionally, some TICs have the ability to detect heat from fresh footprints, if left recently enough.

Motor Vehicle Incidents

If a severe vehicle accident happens during the day, it can be easier to assess the scene simply because you have daylight on your side. It’s easier to see components like broken metal, spilled liquids, tire marks and even ejected persons.  At night, your assessment becomes much more difficult.

Once you’ve secured the accident site, a TIC can help you immediately determine whether or not there are any spilled fuels or hazardous liquids present that may cause a flash fire. Additionally, the accident may have been so severe that you need the TIC to help locate other vehicles in the accident, discover missing persons at the scene, or even recover amputated body parts so that medical personnel may have a chance at reattachment.

Hazardous Materials Response Team

A hazmat team is comprised of experts who specialize in detecting hazardous materials and know how to properly contain and remove any substances that can cause additional damage or trauma at the scene. Thermal imaging cameras are extremely useful in this situation because they allow the user to clearly see the products location, how and where it is spreading, and the temperature difference (especially useful in a situation where there is leaking liquid).

Being able to determine how much of the material has escaped and what is left in the container can provide important and helpful information to the team concerning containment. The TIC can also detect vapor clouds and try to dissipate them so that they don’t cause an additional explosion if a flame were to reach it.

Handhelds vs. Mounted – which is better?

It’s hard not to let personal preference get in the way of what is actually best for your department, however it’s important to evaluate your typical situations to determine what will be the most beneficial camera for your team. You know the average number of structural fires you assist in per year, the number of search and rescues you perform, and so on.

Handheld cameras offer portability, the biggest pro on the list. If you have limited resources in your department and only one camera, handhelds will allow firefighters to quickly hand off the equipment when they are replacing a member of their team. Time is of the essence in these life-saving missions, and this quick handoff will help keep things moving.

Furthermore, handheld devices offer greater range of motion. You are not limited to where the camera is mounted. Extending your arm and slowly panning the TIC around gives you a much larger viewing area than only being able to see what is right in front of you.

Handheld cameras also offer options that may not be found on a mounted version, such as digital temperature displays, multiple image display options, larger viewing screens, and even video storage.

Conversely, handhelds mean just that – you’re holding the camera in your hand. While you can manage the camera with just one hand, it means limited mobility needed for managing rescue tools or other items you may need to use at the scene.

The most beneficial aspect of a mounted camera is that it allows you to keep both hands free. This is especially useful if you’re trying to detect hotspots and need to use both of your hands to demolish structures or brush back foliage while traversing through wooded areas.

While you can transfer a mounted camera from one firefighter to the other, the process takes a lot longer and time may not be on your side.

Other Considerations

The advancement of technology allows us to have more choices than ever before. Some may prove useful to you and others may just be nice to have. With every additional specialty setting, you may see an increase in cost. However, other options that may be useful include:

  • Ability to record and transmit activity (useful if the command center is far away)
  • Better screen resolution
  • Laser Pointers
  • Image captures
  • Wide angle viewing
  • High-Powered flashlight capabilities
  • Hot spot and cold spot tracking features
  • Internal batteries that wirelessly charge
  • Ability to be mounted in the breathing apparatus vs. helmet

Ultimately, thermal imaging cameras are another potential tool in your toolbox. They can’t replace your instincts and your senses. Firefighters are trained to be alert and aware at all times and to use all of their senses to look for times when a fire may become more dangerous or when a structure could fail. These cameras are meant to aid your senses, not replace them. With that being said, thermal imaging cameras have more than proven their value and should be added to your arsenal.

Flir K2 Thermal Imaging Camera Kit, with MSX

  • Budget-friendly, yet reliable option that’s compact and easy to use.
  • Multiple imaging modes

Flir K65 Thermal Imaging Camera Kit, with FSX

  • FSX technology – enhances thermal images through real-time digital processing inside the camera
  • In-camera video storage