As firefighters, our sight is one of our most precious commodities. But when fighting a fire, smoke can quickly rob us of that sense, essentially “blinding” us and handicapping our ability to perform effectively, find the seat of the fire and/or locate victims. Because of this, generations of firefighters have yearned to “see” through smoke—and now they can. In the past 15 years or so, thermal imaging cameras have been introduced into the fire service market, allowing firefighters to virtually “see” through smoke.
Thermal imaging cameras were originally used by the military, with law enforcement special operations units being among the first to adopt them for civilian applications. As thermal imaging cameras technology evolved, the fire service began to embrace it for use during interior structural firefighting. Today, thermal imaging cameras are available for firefighting use in both handheld and helmet-mounted units. (Goggles are also available, but for obvious reasons, they’re not typically usable for interior firefighting.) Commercial and industrial facilities have also found thermal imaging equipment to be very useful for checking on overheating of equipment and electrical wiring.
The Issue of Cost
It wasn’t that long ago that thermal imaging cameras were extremely expensive. The few departments that had them were at times being special-called long distances so other departments could use them. The cost of technology remains a major concern for administrators, because it can delay or prevent departments from placing new, ground-breaking equipment in field operations. Although thermal imaging cameras are still relatively costly today, prices have come down a bit, and thanks to a variety of grant programs, they are much more accessible to most fire companies.
How Thermal Imaging Cameras Work
Thermal imaging cameras can detect, or “see,” emitted heat energy through a variety of filters, including smoke and dust. They can also detect energy emitted through a door or wall, which indicates that they’re hot and that there’s most likely a lot of heat on the other side of the door or wall. Further, thermal imaging cameras can detect energy reflected off of water or mirrors, even though the heat may not actually be coming from those points. Important: Although they’re called “cameras,” fire service thermal imaging cameras only detect differences in heat signatures. Looking through a thermal imaging camera isn’t the same as viewing an object in normal light. Details of objects detected on camera may not be clearly visible, and there may be variations in depth perception, similar to the passenger side mirror on your car. It’s also important to remember that thermal imaging cameras don’t provide night-vision capabilities.
Thermal Imaging Camera Pros & Cons
There are several pros and cons to the different types of thermal imaging cameras. Hand-held thermal imaging cameras are portable and can easily be shared among several crewmembers. A firefighter who needs to exit the hazard zone can simply pass the unit to another firefighter who might be replacing him in that area. Any controls on the unit are at the firefighter’s fingertips; however, as the name implies, the hand-held unit requires a hand to hold it, which can slow firefighting operations.
The helmet-mounted camera allows firefighters to keep both hands free, which eliminates the issue of slow operations, but it’s strapped to the firefighter wearing it, so as soon as they leave the area, the (expensive) camera goes with them. Some helmet-mounted cameras can be removed from one helmet and attached to another, but it does take a bit of time to accomplish this.
There are also thermal imaging goggles, which can be used for search or other exterior operations, but they’re not currently made to interface with SCBA masks and generally aren’t designed for firefighting environments.