Using Hands-Free Thermal Imaging Cameras

On a cool Valentine’s Day evening, a call came in for a structure fire involving a two-story house. Firefighters geared up as usual for a fire in a single-family dwelling, except this time they snapped on helmet-mounted thermal imaging cameras (TICs). This was the first time they were going to be used at a structure fire.

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The first-in apparatus reported flames coming from the exterior of the house around the chimney and started a quick attack. Once the firefighters entered the house, they found a much different situation. No fire or smoke was visible, all the lights were on, and there was no interior indication of the fire’s location. Using the hands-free TIC, the officer observed a growing white hot spot above the fireplace and accurately predicted that the fire had spread to the attic. He ordered a hoseline be sent to the attic. Firefighters quickly found plenty of smoke but no immediately visible flames. The firefighter on the nozzle then observed a small horizontal line of intense heat through the TIC; the fire was spreading through a small void space in a vaulted ceiling. Personnel directed the hose stream at the void space while the second firefighter on the hoseline used his hands-free TIC to help direct it to the now rapidly spreading flames in the attic. The third firefighter on the hoseline, who was below the attic feeding hose, noticed another growing hot spot in the wall with his TIC and used the device to direct another crew to the location of the fire, where they opened the wall to put out the fire.

After the crews extinguished the fire and started breaking down the scene, they gathered around the apparatus. Everyone realized what they accomplished. No one had to be saved from the fire, since there was no problem with visibility in the house. The new cameras allowed us to save more in property loss than the total expense of outfitting every fire apparatus with hands-free TICs.

THE PLAN

Originally, our department had not planned such a grand endeavor. In fact, the original plan was to replace old, outdated TICs with the best available handheld cameras for each apparatus. During the evaluation process, we discovered a small helmet-mounted version that weighed about 1.5 pounds. Initially, we were skeptical, since we had seen some of the first-generation helmet-mounted cameras fail. Evaluating the helmet-mounted TIC in the office, we all still preferred a handheld camera. This TIC was sent to the firefighters for evaluation and met with the same skepticism and resistance from the firefighters and officers.


Hands-free thermal imaging cameras (TICs) allow the firefighters to effectively handle equipment like the hoseline while still viewing thermal images. The use of these cameras companywide will become the standard for operations, much like the SCBA. (Photo by author.)
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However, after using the cameras in actual fire situations, firefighters discovered the hands-free cameras allowed them to use the devices while they were also pulling hose and carrying tools.

After receiving positive response from firefighters, we started seriously researching hands-free cameras as the solution for our department. The amount budgeted to purchase TICs allowed us to purchase three hands-free cameras per fire apparatus, effectively outfitting every firefighter at a structure fire. The idea was that the ability to see should not be limited to one or two firefighters in a company, since more eyes on the fire would benefit everyone, as demonstrated at the first fire at which these TICs were deployed. Each firefighter on the hoseline observed different aspects of the fire, such as fire extension and the direction of the advancing fire. Everyone equipped with the TICs would have visibility and share responsibility for directing other firefighters, not just one firefighter.

DANGERS AND TRAINING

When we decided to put three hands-free TICs on each fire apparatus, it was critical to assess the true benefits or dangers of companywide TIC use. There is plenty of information on general TIC use and safety concerns regarding using only a single TIC per company, but there is not much information on the effect of equipping an entire company with TICs. The most common questions that arise are, What happens if the TIC fails in the middle of a structure? What’s the plan for equipment failure? Our firefighters underwent training not only on properly using the TIC but also to prepare for TIC failure. During the first training session, we quickly discovered that the danger of TIC failure was not the biggest concern.

Training revealed that when unable to see in smoky conditions, firefighters typically stick together and keep in contact with all company members, a fundamental taught in fire academy training. Hence, in low-visibility environments, firefighters tend to grab on to each other’s bunker gear or continually stay in voice contact with the other team members.

Surprisingly, we discovered that improving each firefighter’s ability to see in such conditions decreased the company officer’s ability to manage and account for his team. With the increased ability to see, firefighters would move more quickly through a structure, affecting the officer’s ability to maintain effective control and accountability, a serious concern. We could address this by discontinuing the use of the TICs or by adjusting our training and tactics to use the new devices properly. Training was the immediate answer-taking away a firefighter’s ability to see would not improve the situation.

To address the danger of a lack of accountability, we trained the company officers to instruct the crew members to search specific areas while maintaining orientation with a wall. The entire team would still be able to quickly move through the structure, since clearing a room took only seconds, but if any firefighter’s TIC failed, the company officer would still be able to see and direct the firefighter to return. If the company officer’s TIC failed, the firefighter could still see the company officer and return along with the company officer, maintaining orientation with the wall.

As with any TIC, depth perception is a challenge with hands-free TICs. In a near-zero visibility environment, the TIC is the only equipment that provides adequate visibility and allows firefighters to see objects, rooms, and hallways. Although the TIC allows the firefighter to see structures in near-zero visibility conditions, it distorts depth perception, making it difficult to accurately judge distances. It is easy to see a wall but not really find it until bumping into it. A widely accepted practice is to put a tool out in front to help gauge the distance to walls, furniture, or doors.

Finally, like other TICs, the hands-free TIC tends to fog when firefighters are applying water to a fire-the most common complaint. This is especially true in cold environments, and no reliable solution currently exists. Until the image is moved inside the SCBA mask, there will be a problem with fogging because the camera screen and the SCBA mask will fog.

Training is ongoing; every time the camera is used, more is learned about its proper use. The training was definitely beneficial based on the positive results during the Valentine’s Day fire, since everyone knew how to best use the camera and ultimately prevented the total loss of the structure.

TIME TRIALS

Although it seems obvious that using companywide hands-free TICs produces significant benefits, our department performed time trials to accurately measure the benefits. Teams of two firefighters were assigned to fight a fire and search a simulated 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. A fire was set in the kitchen, and the room was smoked up enough to allow only one to three feet of visibility. The firefighter teams drew numbers to determine whether they would use no TIC, one handheld TIC, or two hands-free TICs. No firefighters repeated the exercise, so it was the first time in the structure for each firefighter. After drawing a number for the team’s configuration, the firefighter teams advanced a hose to the fire and then completed a primary search on the structure. In all, 33 teams completed the trial.

Decreased overall completion time was the first obvious advantage during the trials. Although the time improvements seem only minimally significant, it is important to note the trials incorporated only a small structure. This leads us to believe that a larger structure would produce greater disparity between task completion times. Also, using the hands-free TIC was new to the firefighters, whereas they had plenty of previous experience in working without a TIC.

We asked questions to determine two categories relating to firefighter safety. The first, “Firefighter Orientation,” involved the percentage of time each firefighter was oriented to the other firefighter on the team. The results on the surface seem statistically insignificant because firefighters are trained from the beginning to always stay with their partner. However, on further examination, we found that firefighters with no cameras were able to stay oriented by staying right next to each other, but firefighters with two hands-free cameras were able to stay just as much oriented when separated. This helped prove that the “directed search” tactic did not seem to negatively affect the firefighter’s ability to stay oriented with the rest of the crew.

The second firefighter safety category was “Room Orientation,” including the percentage of time each firefighter would remain oriented to his location within the structure. This category is arguably the most important, since any piece of equipment that prevents firefighters from becoming disoriented will reduce the number of firefighters lost in structure fires.

Disorientation during search is a common difficulty firefighters try to overcome with training and search techniques, but every year firefighters become lost and eventually succumb to the loss of air. The cause of disorientation is directly linked to the low-visibility environment. When firefighters become disoriented and lost, it is also difficult to find exit points such as windows and doors. The ability to see in these dark and smoke-filled environments should be considered an essential part of a firefighter’s safety.

Each firefighter was interviewed separately, and the percentages provided are an average of all of the responses. The firefighters on a team equipped with one handheld TIC had dramatically different experiences. The firefighter with the handheld TIC reported a 90-percent room orientation compared with his partner who had no TIC and reported a 70-percent room orientation. The firefighter with no TIC on a team that had one handheld TIC reported that he felt as though he were “just along for the ride.” This raises the question, if a TIC improves a firefighter’s search confidence and orientation, why give it only to one firefighter on a team? Of course, a handheld TIC is rarely used during initial attack, so any numbers showing benefits of a single handheld TIC are negated by the fact that it is usually still sitting on the apparatus.

The difference in air consumption between the configurations was significant. Air was measured before and after each team finished the exercise and then divided by the amount of time spent in the structure. It was not immediately clear why there was a difference in air consumption, since each team performed the same task. When we asked the firefighters, they said they had less apprehension when they could see, resulting in lower air consumption. Observing several evolutions, we noted that there was significantly less talking when each firefighter was equipped with a hands-free TIC. That was because it was easy for each firefighter to see what the other was doing; less talking resulted in less air consumption. The ability to see each other’s actions improves communication among firefighters. Without having to say a word, team members can see where the team is headed, if they are running out of hose, company officers can indicate where the crew members should go by pointing, tools can be handed to each other, and everyone can see windows and doors.

Our time trials were not extensive enough to constitute a definitive study, but we discovered enough measurable benefits to implement companywide, hands-free TIC use.

THE FUTURE

As more departments purchase hands-free TICs, the manufacturers will begin to provide a greater selection. Outfitting every fire apparatus with multiple cameras will increase the volume of purchase and should ultimately drive down the price.

The TIC will progress as the SCBA did. Originally, the SCBAs met with the same skepticism and resistance-they were too expensive for every firefighter to have one, they didn’t work that well, nobody wanted to use them, and a lot of times they stayed on the apparatus. Now, no one would even think of fighting fire without an SCBA. It will not be long until the TIC is no longer considered “just a tool” but an essential part of a firefighter’s personal protection equipment. The late Frank Brannigan saw the future several years ago when he said, “A thermal imager, the firefighter’s radar, should be up at the nozzle with the nozzleman … firefighters need their hands to hold hoselines.” He viewed the TIC as an essential piece of safety equipment to see fire in the floors, ceiling, and walls. Many firefighters have died because they were unable to find fire in ceilings and floors. The ability to see these dangers increases firefighter safety.

JONATHAN BOYD, a 10-year veteran of the fire service, is division chief and a training officer with the Allen (TX) Fire Department and a member of the Fire Instructors Association of North Texas.

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