The most important goal of firefighting is to save lives. When arriving at a structure fire a team of firefighters conducts a rapid but thorough search before or during fire suppression to locate and rescue any victims. The risks can be high in this operation since victims may be disoriented, injured or unconscious. And of course, the firefighters themselves are in danger should walls, stairs, or a ceiling collapse or should there be an explosion.
Even though the search and rescue team wear personal protective equipment, including oxygen tanks, their vision is often impaired due to smoke and darkness as a result of electrical power being disabled.
Enter the use of Thermal Imaging Cameras (TIC) to aid firefighters in rescue operations.
Thermal imaging cameras allow firefighters to see through darkness or smoke so they can locate and rescue victims faster. They have been credited with saving multiple lives every year.
TICs can be used to search for victims outdoors on a cool night or to spot smoldering fires inside a wall. They can even detect overheated electrical wiring.
In timed testing, teams of firefighters with helmet-mounted cameras completed search tasks substantially faster, were less disoriented, and used less air than teams with a single handheld camera, who in turn fared better than teams with no TIC at all.
In summary, TICs 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.
The ability to see through smoke and darkness and save lives faster is the most compelling reason to use TICs. Furthermore, helmet-mounted TICs allow multiple firefighters to each observe different aspects of a fire which can aid in rapid fire suppression.
A limitation of TICs is their poor depth perception, which means the user has a hard time judging how far away objects are. This increases the likelihood that the user will trip over or run into obstacles, or have other distance-related problems.
An additional limitation of infrared technology is that since materials at the same temperature are shown as the same color, the display will not depict many details normally viewable in visible light.
Additional limiations include:
- Some firefighters may relaxe their safety discipline, due to their ability to see.
- TICs can detect energy reflected off of water or mirrors, even though the heat may not actually be coming from those points
- Firefighters may speed up the search process, causing them to get deeper into buildings, which can become a problem due to a limited air supply.
- Firefighters also have a natural desire to stand due to their ability to see. However, this goes against the fundamentals of staying low below superheated smoke and gases.
- Firefighters can also become too dependent on the device and in time of failure become totally disoriented.
HANDHELD vs. HELMET TICs
There are pros and cons to the different types of TICs.
Handheld TICs are portable and can easily be shared among several crew members. 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 handheld 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 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.
Like all electronic equipment, TICs are becoming smaller, lighter and less expensive, which makes them more readily employable by firefighters. And they’ve proven their worth over and over again on the fireground and beyond.
TICs provide valuable information to crews and can be a lifesaving resource. Yet, they are just another tool. Firefighters must be trained to avoid becoming overly reliant on them, as they are no replacement for a firefighter’s senses. Firefighters must emphasize their own eyes and ears to look for signs, such as increasing heat and warnings of structural failure, or that a fire is becoming more dangerous.
TICs should be used as a tool to support a firefighter’s already well-trained senses.