Thermal imaging cameras have been in the fire service since the mid-1980s. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) purchased them at that time for its rescue companies and haz mat unit. The ’90s have seen the fire service develop a widespread interest in these cameras. This phenomenon can be attributed to several factors. The first is the growing awareness that these cameras can be extremely helpful in our daily firefighting duties. They can be used for multiple applications: in searching for possible victims and missing firefighters while fighting fires and for size-up, fire attack, and overhaul. They have also proven to be valuable in haz-mat operations.
Moreover, these cameras are more widely available now than in the 1980s. You may find from six to nine different manufacturers of thermal imaging cameras at any conference or exhibition. The increase in the number of manufacturers hopefully will drive down the cameras’ prices, which exceed the fiscal capability of many departments. Some states, cities, municipalities, small towns, and so on, recognizing the need for the cameras and realizing that their cost is beyond the means of many fire departments, are helping departments to obtain a camera. The state of New Jersey, for example, is planning to spend $7.5 million and supply all of the state’s fire departments with a thermal imaging camera. Many departments have had raffles, cake sales, and other fund-raising drives to help defray the camera’s cost. Others have had corporate or civic sponsors donate the funds to purchase a camera.
These cameras are an important resource in the incident commander’s toolbox. Their capability to detect a hidden hot spot early in the fire operations can mean the difference between a one-line fire and a multiple-alarm fire. Many departments are carrying thermal imaging cameras. Some have only one unit; others have multiple cameras strategically located in various units.
My personal experience as the commander of a rescue unit that received one of these cameras in the mid-1980s is that the camera has proven its value in numerous fire operations. FDNY is planning to purchase 170 additional cameras for placement on its ladder companies. This technology would then be available on every ladder company as well as on every rescue, squad, and haz-mat company.
Ray Downey, battalion chief and chief of rescue operations, Fire Department of New York; USAR task force leaders representative to FEMA for all 27 teams; member of FEMA’s Advisory Committee; author of the book The Rescue Company, the video Rescue Operational Planning: Factors for Success, and the video series Collapse Rescue for the Fire Service, published by Fire Engineering; and editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.
Questions: Participants were asked to address some or all of the following questions:
- How long has your department been using a thermal imaging camera?
- Was it purchased with department funding or with other funds (grants, fund-raising, donations, or other)?
- Which type of camera did you purchase: handheld or helmet-mounted? Why did you choose this model? Did another department recommend that type or model? What influenced your department to purchase the camera you presently have?
- Did your department test the camera before it was purchased?
- Did you purchase the basic package or a unit with additional features such as transmitting or video capability?
- Has the camera enabled you to have any successful “finds” or rescues? Have you used the camera in any unusual or unique types of incidents?
- Which unit(s) carries the camera in your department?
- Have you had any serious problems with the camera? If so, did the manufacturer resolve these problems in a timely manner?
- What advice would you offer to departments considering purchasing a thermal imaging camera?
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief,
Cedar Hammock and Southern
Manatee Fire Districts, Florida
Response: My department has been using thermal imaging cameras (TICs) since December 1998. After initially considering a special fund-raising effort to purchase them, it was decided to purchase them from the general budget.
We chose a handheld model over the helmet-mounted model, based on the results of extensive testing of several models and a review of evaluations completed by the firefighters and fire officers. The evaluation process lasted several months and involved the use of TICs in a very large windowless building full of boxed storage, in live fire training burns at acquired structures, and in a classroom setting. All participants completed an evaluation sheet for each brand of camera they used. The crews generally felt that the handheld model was more versatile and could be used more quickly. The ability to “hand it off” to others easily was a very important factor. We considered what other departments were using, although we were given no specific recommendations. Providing the most up-to-date technology for the safety of our firefighters and citizens was the factor that most strongly influenced our decision to purchase the cameras.
We bought six units-one for each “first-out” engine. Although we purchased basic units, we are now considering additional features and plan to add remote transmission and video recording capabilities soon.
Although we have used the TICs many times already for a multitude of tasks, we have not had a successful rescue using a camera up to this point. The one successful rescue we had since we began using the TICs required a conventional search using hand lights and feeling our way because the victim (a small child) was under a bed and was not detected by the camera.
However, we have used the cameras for a couple of unusual situations. At a recent incident, a vehicle struck a pedestrian on the interstate highway, resulting in the complete amputation of the right leg. Responders manually searched for the limb for approximately 30 minutes before the camera was called to the scene. On arriving at the scene, the engine company using the TIC quickly located the limb in the woods approximately 150 feet from the incident site after being directed to the general area by a helicopter with a “belly-mounted” camera.
At other times, our cameras have also been used by law enforcement officers to assist in locating “hot” rooms in houses used to grow marijuana. The camera easily detects the temperature difference caused by “grow lights.”
We have not had any major problems with the TICs to this point. The local dealer quickly resolved a few minor problems. As part of our bid requirement, if a TIC is going to be in the shop for more than 48 hours, we are to be provided with a loaner, which works out well for us.
Technology in the field of thermal imaging cameras is rapidly changing. If your department is thinking about purchasing them, test several models in actual fire conditions, and obtain as much information as possible before deciding on a brand or model. Make sure that the firefighters who will be using them have a major part in the selection process.
TICs will make a difference in your operations. Set up a workable SOP for their proper use, and remember that conventional searches still need to be part of your rescue plan. We have found that we use the cameras on a multitude of calls for a variety of tasks. TICs are very versatile and should be part of every firefighter’s “toolbox.”
Rick Lasky, chief,
Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department
Response: We have been using a thermal imaging camera since last December. We were very fortunate to have our local service organizations step forward and help our funding efforts. One in particular, the Coeur d’Alene Sunrise Rotary Club, felt that it was a very important life-saving tool and purchased one for our department. It is in the process of buying a second camera for the department.
After researching several brands and styles of cameras-and there are several very good models-we chose a handheld camera. We felt there were fewer restrictions with a handheld model, especially when it comes to handing it off to another firefighter. We looked at the pros and cons of both types. After trying them for some time, we stayed with the handheld model.
We purchased a unit with the additional video transmitting features but have not yet had the opportunity to use that function. We have used the camera many times during search and rescue and have successfully located hidden fire and hot spots. The TIC has definitely sped up the search and rescue process, giving us the added valuable time we need for a successful search.
We currently carry the camera on one of our engines. This particular engine company is very busy and takes in many of the mutual-aid runs, serving in a suppression mode or RIT assignment.
We have not experienced any problems to date and are also very fortunate to have a dependable and reputable supplier. When preparing to purchase a camera, research as many models as possible; allow your firefighters to use them; and, most importantly, continue to train your firefighters in conventional search techniques.
Wallace Page, senior captain,
Planning and Research, Houston (TX) Fire Department
Response: The Houston Fire Department placed 46 thermal imaging cameras into service during August 1999. These cameras were purchased with funds obtained through our City Council after extensive research and justification for the need of this technology during firefighting and rescue operations.
We started testing cameras in November 1998, knowing very little about the types and options available. All manufacturers were invited to participate in a two-day session to show us their products. It was immediately apparent that a handheld unit was preferred, to allow for “quick handoff,” if needed. A large viewing screen was also very important so that more than one person at a time can see the screen.
When the final bell rang after months of testing, we took delivery of 46 handheld thermal imaging cameras with large viewing screens, a sleep-mode button for extended battery life, and multiple straps and handle positioning for adapting to each user. We placed a camera on each of our 36 ladder companies, to guarantee at least one camera at every structure fire. The remaining cameras were purchased with transmitting capabilities and placed on our haz-mat units, rescue trucks, and command van and at our training academy.
The feedback from firefighters has been tremendous. The reports show that stress and anxiety levels are reduced when faced with an interior fire attack and rescue. Out-of-service times for companies are reduced when an overheated ballast is easily located in an office building. Overhaul operations are less laborious and time-consuming when the hot spots are found easily with the camera.
Although we have not had a dramatic rescue for the prime time news, we have saved countless dollars in property damage and helped our firefighters do their job by giving them what has become a priceless piece of equipment.
Our department has enjoyed an exceptional relationship with the manufacturer of our thermal imaging cameras. We have experienced only a few minor problems, and they were handled immediately.
All fire departments should make thermal imaging a priority. This technology is very dynamic, so each department should research and test what is available and choose a thermal imaging camera that fits its needs.
John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of operations,
Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue
Response: Toledo Fire and Rescue Department has been using our three helmet-mounted thermal imaging cameras for more than two years now. A major insurance company gave them to us.
The Training Bureau deputy chief made the decision to purchase the helmet-mounted cameras after testing several models and styles. At that time, the technology of the helmet-mounted camera was superior to that of the handheld model. We also liked the fact that the wearer’s hands would be free. The helmet-mounted model and several handheld cameras were tested in the burn building during live fire burns. Since we were not purchasing the cameras, and the insurance company was offering a specified amount of money, it was decided that we would get the most for our money and purchase three cameras and none of the accessories.
My first experience with the camera was at a second-alarm in an assisted-living high-rise fire. I went up to the crew with the camera after the members came down and asked how it worked. The officer said it worked very well. He said that all they saw on the fire floor was smoke. The firefighter with the camera could see from which door the smoke was coming as soon as they opened the door to the hallway. The officer went on to say that without the camera, they would have had to feel each door until they located the fire room. We have also used it at several haz-mat incidents to determine the level of liquid in the tanker involved. The liquid creates a difference in the temperature of the tanker’s shell and thus makes it detectable with the camera. To my knowledge, we have not had a confirmed “save” with the camera.
We have had many problems with the helmet mount on our cameras. Firefighters by nature are not the gentlest people in the world, and the manufacturer has had problems with the mounting system. Because of this, we have had the cameras in for repair often, and the manufacturer allows only one “loaner” per department. Because they break often, our firefighters don’t wear them as much as they could. We are working on this. We have not been pleased with the manufacturer or its ability to fix the problem and get us loaners in a timely fashion. The firefighters also say that the additional weight of the camera is literally “a pain in the neck.”
If considering purchasing a camera, I recommend that you take a real long look at handheld models.
Gary Morris, assistant chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: Presently, the Phoenix Fire Department owns two thermal imaging cameras, which have been in operation for the past several years. The devices are handheld and bulky. As such, they have been primarily used in the overhaul process to locate hot spots or hidden fire in concealed spaces.
As with many departments, Phoenix has been evaluating the evolving technology in this arena. We have access to donated money and recently conducted field evaluations on several devices from various manufacturers. The tests included meetings with many vendors, live fire evaluations, and a 30-day field evaluation. Important criteria for the evaluations included weight, handling, comfort, ruggedness, viewing ease, and screen clarity.
Thermal imaging is an evolving technology. Its use has important implications for firefighter safety, survival of fire victims, and more effective fire combat capabilities. However, the technology is not at the level it needs to be-and won’t be unless the fire service demands it and begins to purchase the camera.
Handheld devices remain awkward and inefficient. Thermal imaging needs to be miniaturized, helmet-mounted, with a heads-up style of screen on the helmet face shield. The devices need to be a standard complement to the firefighter’s personal protective equipment ensemble.
I remember examining a PASS device, supplied by a British manufacturer, at a fire conference in Great Britain in 1989. It had a built-in radio telemetry capability that would send a radio signal to the command post and dispatch center, identifying the firefighter when the device activated manually or the firefighter collapsed. Furthermore, the incident commander could cause the radio activation of a different sounding audible tone on the PASS device from the command post, alerting the crews to evacuate the building. A very advanced device.
I suggested the manufacturer demonstrate the device at several American fire service conferences. He did so but came away disappointed in that there was no interest in the device. Although the American fire service rejected this advanced PASS device, it is proving to be very effective in Great Britain, where, I might add, there is a very, very low rate of firefighter fatalities.
The point of this story is that technology can be effective in the American fire service, but only if we embrace it and demand the type and level of technology that works. The fire service should drive the design of thermal imaging devices. Therefore, we need to aggressively pursue its use and engage manufacturers to closely integrate our needs into future designs.
Fred Endrikat, Rescue Company 1,
Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department
Response: We have been using thermal imaging cameras since 1995. We purchased the basic packages with department funding. We have the helmet-mounted and handheld models. Initially, we liked the idea of “hands-free” operation. Also, at the time we purchased it, the technology seemed to be better than for most other handheld models on the market at that time. The Hazardous Materials Administrative Unit selected the handheld model after its field testing because it offered a good cost vs. performance value for its needs. We are leaning toward the handheld models because they offer a good cost vs. performance value.
Rescue Company 1 tested a number of cameras, evaluating them in the field during actual fire duty responses. We also conducted performance evaluations of various cameras in evolutions at the burn building at the Philadelphia Fire Academy. We corresponded with other large metropolitan fire departments before a final decision was made, but the field testing and the performance evaluations conducted at the Academy were the main determining factors for purchase.
We have not had an actual rescue attributed to the camera, but we have had many successful “finds” in the sense of locating fire under difficult heat and smoke conditions. The camera is primarily used by the rescue company on larger commercial and larger type residential building fires. It is requested by chief officers at buildings that have large open areas, maze-like conditions, high ceilings, plenums, and so on for reconnaissance. It is used frequently on high-rise (residential or commercial) fires. It takes the guesswork out of searching for the location of the fire and is particularly effective when looking for fire extension in large buildings. By identifying the exact location of fire (and extension), it significantly reduces the punishment firefighters endure while conducting physical searches on certain firegrounds.
It has been used (sometimes in conjunction with team-search/rope search operations) to successfully locate significant fires under extremely heavy smoke/heat conditions in the following scenarios:
- concealed metal ductwork in the processing room of the United States Mint,
- deep-seated fire in a heavily layered commercial roof,
- fire in a cold storage vault in a loft building (large open area 200 feet 3 200 feet),
- fire source and extensions in utility pipe chases and mechanical system ducts in numerous high-rise fires,
- hidden fire in walls and ductwork in restaurant kitchens,
- hidden fire in cockloft areas of large commercial garages,
- commercial basement and subbasement fires, and
- fires in rolled roofing products in commercial rack storage.
Rescue Company 1 carries the camera used for fireground operation. The Hazardous Materials Task Force carries a handheld thermal imaging camera for hazardous materials incidents and to supplement Rescue 1’s camera on fireground operations, if required.
We have had no serious operational problems with the camera. When the camera needs servicing, the manufacturer of the most frequently used camera immediately ships us a loaner to use until ours is returned. The manufacturer has been very cooperative.
When considering the purchase of your first TICs, correspond with fire departments using thermal imaging cameras on a fairly regular basis during actual fireground operations. This will give you a realistic idea of how specific cameras perform under adverse conditions when there is little room for error. Since the technology and the operations are constantly improving, contact as many manufacturers as possible, and gather all current information. By combining your current research with feedback from departments experienced in thermal imaging camera operations, you should be able to narrow the field of choices.
Once the field of choices is down to a manageable number, make a comprehensive evaluation of each brand of camera under realistic smoke, heat, and fire conditions in a live burn situation. After this field evaluation, compare the test cameras on a point-by-point basis, covering issues such as frequency of maintenance, cost vs. value/performance, ease of use, manufacturer’s support, warranty information, electronic features, user comfort, and helmet-mounted operations vs. handheld operations. This process will help you determine which camera is right for your specific needs. Your final purchase decision will then be a well-informed one.
Terry E. Boes, Jr., instructor,
Fort Wayne (IN) Fire Department
Response: Our department purchased a helmet-mounted thermal imaging camera with department funds a little over two years ago. At the time, it was the only style available. Now, we feel that we should have waited for the technology to advance before making the purchase. We did not test the camera extensively and not in fire or smoke conditions, which was a mistake.
We purchased the basic package. At the time, the only video capability was hardwire, which meant you had to drag the coaxial cable along with you, which was not an attractive option.
We have not made a human rescue with it yet, but we have saved a large amount of property by using it to locate small or hidden fires and minimizing overhaul damage.
Since we have only one thermal imaging unit covering 13 engine company territories, we still depend on traditional search and rescue methods for our primary search in most incidents. The unit is carried on our heavy rescue, which runs on all structure fires in the city’s 13 first-due territories.
Since life safety is our main objective on the fire scene, many departments use the thermal imaging camera primarily for search and rescue. Certainly, the main selling point for the camera is that it makes search faster and more efficient. Many departments, therefore, use the thermal imaging cameras at residential fires. We have also found that in residential structures, the search is accomplished in the same time frame, but we feel more confident that we have not passed over a potential victim. Note: You must be trained in traditional search and rescue methods first. Don’t rely on thermal imaging to replace your ability to orient yourself, move, and search in low-visibility environments.
My department’s procedure is to wear the unit (not necessarily use it-this is up to the officer’s discretion per run) at every residential fire. It is an option at commercial fires. This seems to be the common thinking among departments with whom I have spoken that have the technology.
A recent conversation with Andrew A. Fredericks of the Fire Department of New York has caused me to change my thinking on this. He believes that we are using the cameras on the buildings in which we are more experienced, that are smaller in area and in which we will not become easily disoriented, and that enable us to get a pretty good idea of what is going on inside the building by looking at the outside. The large, open areas of commercial buildings with their unknown layouts, on the other hand, pose life hazards, especially for firefighters.
As with all tools and methods, the way you use the TIC will be determined by department size, response type, staffing levels, training, and philosophy. Most career departments have a rescue or a number of rescues that respond to all working fires. Many departments place this expensive technology on the rescue. We do this in my department as well. It is up to each individual crew that staffs that apparatus on any given shift to determine how the camera will be used.
My crew has assigned one firefighter responsibility for the camera. During that shift, he dons the TIC helmet and reports with the driver to cut utilities. He is to be available to assist with the primary and secondary searches. (The officer and one firefighter respond directly to the house and begin a primary search.) Our protocol is to walk around the house, do a size-up, locate the probable location of the main breaker panel, and go in and throw the main breaker. We enter the house, using the TIC to aid in locating the breaker panel, searching each room we pass on the way. In most residential situations, the panel is very near the entrance where the service connects to the home. At that time we notify the incident commander that utility shutoff has been completed. Unless we receive another assignment, we begin using the TIC to do a search. Many times, we will be assigned to search for possible victims immediately, and utility control is assigned to the truck company. Another common scenario is that we are asked to assist the first line in locating the fire. (The reason for this is that we have a very outdated unit that takes nearly a full minute to don. We have decided that if we replace this unit with a handheld unit, or even a clip-on helmet-mounted unit, our initial entry team could use it.)
Another crew on a different shift in my department assigns the TIC to the officer. He and one firefighter use it immediately for the primary or secondary search. Remember, the TIC does not tell you how hot its viewing area is. It compares and contrasts the temperatures it detects. These contrasting signals give you outlines of different objects that deal with their environment in different ways. The images you see look like a photo negative because the way a material handles heat is remotely connected to physical properties that also affect the way it deals with light.
I would not recommend using a TIC on personnel in an initial attack to combine the attack with an aggressive search. The intense heat when close enough to the seat of the fire to extinguish it is far too high, resulting in a complete whiteout of the video image. Some units reportedly do not white out in these situations, but I have not heard of them from firefighters who have used them in the field.
Our crews experienced this in a flashover chamber. I also experienced this in the attic of an extremely large ranch house that had renovated a two-car garage into a four-car garage and created a 12-foot-high void space between the original roof and the new one. Being the only firefighter small enough to fit between the ceiling joists, I was boosted into this space, wearing the TIC, and was handed a line. Before opening the nozzle, I flipped down my viewing screen and got nothing but white. What we determined is that the TIC is a good tool for aiding the search in smoky areas away from the fire but is ineffective in close proximity to the fire room.
We have encountered some other problems with images. One is that when you look at ads of the camera’s images, you see a body lying in the middle of a nice clean floor with no debris and a lot of floor space. We all know the residences we are burning don’t look anything like that. The rooms are small, crowded, and have broken furniture and weeks’ worth of garbage. The citizens we find aren’t lying on a clean floor out in the middle of the room but are wedged between a bed and a wall, under a window, or behind a couch or are in a pile of last month’s dirty laundry. Those images aren’t quite as easy to interpret.
Another observation is that heat doesn’t stay still. It moves, just like visible flame-too much like visible flame sometimes. At a fire in the laundry room of a multiple dwelling, one of my crewmates came in with the TIC and looked into a small hole I had poked in the ceiling and immediately ordered me to pull the remaining sections of the ceiling in that room. I pulled two 4-foot 3 8-foot sections down. As the smoke cleared, we found nothing. The TIC operator thought he had seen fire in the ceiling area, but he had just seen the heat buildup in that small void. We did quite a bit of damage that probably was not necessary.
Also, heat from an object can leave an image after the object is gone. That object appears to be there, and that object could be a person. On entering a bedroom at an apartment fire, I noticed, through the heavy smoke conditions, the shape of a person lying in the bed from several feet across the room. I quickly reached for it and could feel nothing. I looked again and saw the shape right in front of me. I felt the bed, saw the dark shape of my own hand patting the bed right over the shape, and felt nothing. I flipped up the screen and put my face on the bed. I saw nothing but bedsheets. After the fire, we investigated and found the occupant had been in bed and fled when the smoke detectors went off. What I was seeing was the heat from the occupant’s body radiating from the bed.
As with most operations, experience is the best way to learn to use thermal imaging cameras. Beyond actual experience, training is important. With TICs, you learn nuances each time you train or use the unit. Every time I wear it, I learn how to use it a little more efficiently. Here are some techniques and tips our department members have learned:
- Learn to create a frame of reference in your viewing area. Always try to keep something you know in the picture as you look around a room. It could be a door, window, chair, or bed. Use it to indicate distance, size, and temperature. This will keep you more oriented.
- Take the time to have the unit you are using fit you snug and comfortably so you can move freely and turn in all directions. If the unit is constricting you in some way, you will not be as safe as you can be.
- Don’t rely on the unit for 100 percent of your orientation in a building. Pay attention to the way you came in and the locations of doors and windows. Be prepared to exit the building rapidly without the unit. No matter how reliable the unit may be, don’t be willing to bet your life on its functions. Always carry a tool or tools when using a TIC. The camera will not be able to keep conditions from changing unexpectedly, the way we know they sometimes do.
- Don’t feel you can go off on your own because you have the TIC. You should continue to work in the buddy system. If you go down, the camera will not drag your rear out of the building.
- When searching for that hot spot after knockdown or for the hot light ballast, reach an ungloved hand into the picture. If the hot spot or light at which you are looking (which will always appear white, since it is the hottest object in your viewing field) is hot enough to be a problem, it will make your hand appear black because of the contrasting temperatures. If your hand appears light colored compared with the hot spot or light, the spot is more than likely not hot enough to be a problem.
- Be diligent in the care of your unit. Be sure to check its function as a regular part of your morning apparatus and equipment inspection. When you don the unit at a scene, throw an extra battery into one of your pockets.
With regard to repairs, one of the pixels went out, which was not a major problem. It just gave us a small white dot in the center of the screen. Recently though, the display lenses received major heat damage during a residential fire. (Our outdated unit has two small round binocular display lenses.) Our unit has been out of service for some time now; no loaner unit has been made available.
If planning for your first purchase of a TIC, don’t skimp on other equipment to get one; use outside funding. Test several units in live fire situations-in houses, not burn chambers. Get the unit you feel is the best rather than the cheapest, and don’t be afraid to spend the few extra dollars to get video capability if you feel you can use it. It can be a good tool for training in live burns or smoke houses, allowing training officers to evaluate the exercises from a remote location. The difference between spending $12,000 to $15,000 dollars vs. $14,000 to $17,000 dollars is not that great. Another good source for comparing several units is the Navy testing done in 1999, which is available on the Internet. Few departments have the resources to do such an extensive study.
Thermal imaging certainly has some good applications. It is a positive acquisition for a busy department large enough to afford it and can give its users the training and live experience to become comfortable with it. For departments with smaller budgets that cannot ensure that someone with adequate training and experience will take it into a fire each time, there may be a better way to spend 25,000 hard-earned dollars. If I had to choose between a TIC and a 36-inch drop forged halligan tool clipped to a flathead ax, I would choose the latter.
But, as my officer states, there will be that time when conditions and times will be just right so that the TIC will allow me to see that victim-maybe just a little hand sticking out from under a bed-that I might have missed otherwise, and save a life. And that one life will make the cost and the preparations all worth it.