BY BILL MANNING
The smiling politician handing a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to the smiling fire chief has become a frequent media image. Elected officials across the country are finding it fashionable-and, miracle of miracles, within budgets-to jump on the infrared bandwagon.
In Washington, legislators in the House have introduced a bill that would press $100 million into the service of supplying fire departments nationwide with TICs.
In New Jersey, state officials delivered TICs to every fire department statewide. Other states, including Connecticut and California, are following suit.
Across the country, local cake sales and donation drives have put cameras into the hands of hundreds of firefighters who otherwise would be fighting fires the “old fashioned” way.
TICs are politically chic. They buy firefighter votes and those of the general public. The public has embraced a technology promised to increase their chances of surviving a fire, which makes funding it relatively easy. In some cases, fire companies that can’t get PASS alarms, flashlights, and an adequate supply of portable radios suddenly find themselves with a miracle camera.
In fact, the TIC is one of the most spectacular applications of external technology to the fire service since the steam engine. But it cannot “see through walls,” and it is not a panacea. It is one firefighting tool, with limitations and operational requirements. In the hands of untrained and inexperienced firefighters inside a structure fire, misuse can have serious consequences.
Many firefighters rightly believe that TICs will be a standard part of firefighting equipment, like a set of irons or SCBA. But there’s reason for concern that in the midst of a dramatic rise in camera purchases, firefighters are not receiving the training they need to operate them safely in an interior structure fire environment.
Just a few years ago, there were two manufacturers of TICs. Now there are 10. It has become a very competitive business. For the manufacturers, there’s no money in comprehensive training. With some exceptions, short of a very basic camera orientation, many fire departments are left to their own devices, and many don’t recognize the necessity of specialized, thorough TIC training prior to implementation.
In the shadow of expanding funding streams and TIC fanfare, wear testing and even training are seen by some as incidental. Fire departments are falling prey to the “point, click, and shoot” mentality. TIC training outfits complain that even when departments build operational training for their members into their camera purchases, free of cost to the firefighters, many firefighters are not showing up for it.
Some fire academies now offer courses in TIC operational training, but, in general, available training cannot keep up with the speed with which fire departments are acquiring cameras.
Completing what some feel is a recipe for disaster, there are no safety standards for TIC design, manufacture, or use.
Charles Hall, a retired battalion chief from the Union (NJ) Fire Department and now the owner of the Union Fire Equipment Corporation, an equipment dealer that sells TICs, supports TIC safety standards. When New Jersey issued its state bid for its TIC program, he lobbied hard for changes to the specs. Topping his list was the issue of non-intrinsic safety.
No TIC on the market is intrinsically safe for use in flammable/explosive atmospheres. In the interest of firefighter safety, Hall argued, the state was responsible for making sure that all TIC units it delivered to fire departments throughout the state were labeled in accordance with applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. It was only a matter of time, not a remote potential, Hall said, before firefighters unknowingly carried an arcing camera into a flammable atmosphere within its lower and upper explosive limits, such as in a residential gas leak or a propane tank leak, for example.
The state attorney general responded that in examining “the issue of intrinsic safety, it was determined that issue was not significant.” But Hall persisted. A year and a half later, the state issued a safety bulletin to all fire departments citing OSHA 29 CFR 1926.449 language on “intrinsically safe equipment and associated wiring” and warning firefighters of the extreme danger that exists for a non-intrinsically safe tool to be improperly deployed in a hazardous atmosphere.
But Hall admits that safety labeling and bulletins only go so far, especially in situations of wholesale purchase and distribution. “The bottom line is training, training, training,” says Hall, echoing others concerned about a great technology getting too far ahead of us.
Basically, we must control it before it controls us. The TIC has profound implications for firefighter safety in basic, everyday fireground operations. There are myths to be dispelled and tactical contingencies to be learned. There are questions to which every fire department must have answers, answers that only specific training can, and will, supply.
How does the TI camera fit within our search concept? How do we interpret the visual signs we’re getting on the screen? How do we prevent, or account for, a natural operator tendency toward fireground tunnel vision? Have we accounted for the fact that the “camera man” (nozzleman, backup man, door man, can man, irons man-now, “camera man”) might not gain his heightened secondary senses and memory during a limited-visibility search, because in using the camera, he has not lost his sense of sight? How will we account for the fact that when it hits the fan and conditions deteriorate, the camera man has no real orientation in the room, and, therefore, probably won’t know the way out? Have we accounted for the strategic and tactical resource implications associated with an additional task (camera work) having to be performed by already stretched-thin companies? Does the first-in engine stretch the handline or lead with the camera? How do we search with a camera in the large occupancies, like supermarkets, office buildings, and libraries? Do we need a camera with telemetry, or not? After scanning the room, should I complete the search with the camera, or leave it by the door? That’s only the beginning.
The fire service has embraced the TI camera for good reason, and should continue to seek funding for it. But beyond political fashion, beyond the tool’s merits and acceptance, lie responsibility and accountability.
The tool is neither a substitute for sound firefighting principles and practices nor for the critical tools and manpower required to accomplish our objective effectively and safely. We must seek appropriate training and general safety standardization with respect to this relatively new tool. And no department should implement a TI camera or any other tool in the firefighting arsenal without first having a complete understanding of its strategic and tactical relevance and the training in its operational use, from the chief of department down to the last firefighter on the line.