Thermal-imaging camera

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
The Hillsboro Fire Department hopes to some day add state-of-the-art equipment to its arsenal-to more effectively fight fires, help rescue victims and safeguard the lives of volunteer firefighters in the area.

The new piece of equipment is a thermal-imaging camera. The fire department established an account about 2 1/2 years ago, with a certain portion of fund-raising money earmarked toward the eventual purchase.

Looking like a small video camera, the unit uses advanced infrared detectors and electronic systems to reveal images in heat instead of light.

“It displays an image in the difference in temperature, and uses infrared heat waves as opposed to light waves,” said Ben Steketee, Hillsboro fire chief.

“For example, in a smoke-filled room where there’s no fire, the figure of a body would appear in white. But if there’s fire in the room, and the rest of the air is hotter, then the body would appear in black.”

The most significant factor hindering firefighting effectiveness is the inability to see in smoke-filled buildings, according to Steketee.

Thermal imaging cameras allow firefighters to virtually see through smoke.

“No firefighting tool introduced in the last 100 years has had a more significant impact than thermal imagers will have over the next five years,” according to the Web site.

How does the thermal-imaging camera work?

All objects have a certain temperature and emit waves of thermal energy called infrared radiation. The hotter an object, the more energy waves are emitted.

A thermal imager translates the energy waves into an easily viewed image. The hottest objects are displayed as white, the coolest objects show as black, and features of other objects appear as varying shades of gray.

The camera is a sophisticated device that gives firefighters a thermal picture of their environment to pinpoint fires, allows them to see through smoke to identify the presence and position of victims, recognizes structural dangers before they cause injury or death and locates firespread.

“If you have a fire in a structure, and you think you’ve got it knocked down, there could be fire hidden in a wall,” Steketee said about the danger of firespread.

“When you come in with the thermal, you’d be able to locate that. If you can locate firespread quickly, then you save much more of the structure.”

The camera is durable, designed for crawling conditions, simple to operate with one button and fire resistant. It has a range of up to one-quarter mile, is light weight and small enough to be held in one hand.

Thermal-imaging cameras vary in cost. The model under consideration will cost about $16,000. The department is also looking into a 2005 model, but information regarding cost and special features on the newer model will not be available until November.

“It’s very timely to get it at this point in time,” Steketee said. “The price has come down about half of what they cost when they were first brought on the market. And technology is coming up.”

Steketee demonstrated a thermal-imaging camera at a recent breakfast fund-raiser organized by Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church. The event raised about $2,500.

“They were very enthusiastic,” Steketee said about the response. “Most people realized what an important tool it is. I’ve heard only positive comments.”

The fund-raiser was organized to thank the fire department and volunteers for their efforts at the church fire in March.

If the department had the thermal imager at that fire, firefighters would have been pulled out of the burning building sooner, Steketee said, “because we would have realized the intensity of the fire we were fighting.”

In Marion County, the only fire department that owns a thermal-imaging camera is in Goessel.

If the Hillsboro fire department is able to purchase a camera, Steketee said it would benefit other fire departments, because Hillsboro has a mutual-aid agreement with all Marion County departments.

Describing a typical scenario with victims trapped inside a smoke-filled or burning building, Steketee said two firefighters are assigned to a hose line.

“They go in to attack the fire and to protect the exit for the rescuers and the victims,” he said.

“Then, I have two rescuers who go in to perform search and rescue operations. One of them would be holding the thermal-imaging camera. But the way it’s made, both could view it.”

Once the victims are located, the rescue team takes over to pull them out while the hose team and any other assisting firefighters continue the firefighting operations.

Without the camera, firefighters conduct a right-hand search-sweeping with hands and legs while searching for victims amid home furnishings.

“It’s very time consuming and tedious, but that’s how we do it now because we’re basically blind,” Steketee said.

By identifying victims by sight and not touch, the camera can reduce search time by 50 percent, according to the thermalimager.
bullard.com Web site.

In protecting the lives of firefighters, the camera has been designed to identify hidden fire and unsafe heat conditions, locate firefighters who are down, determine the presence of failing structural components and help personnel find alternate exits from the building.

In 1999, a nationwide study of the effectiveness of thermal imagers was carried out in 60 test burns around the country, according to the Bullard Web site, with the following results:

– Without a thermal imager-60 percent of the time, firefighters were unable to locate the victim. More than 30 percent of the time, firefighters couldn’t find their way out of the burning structure.

– With a thermal imager-99 percent of the time, firefighters were able to locate the victim. And 100 percent of the time, firefighters found their way out of the burning house.

With the imager, the time required to satisfactorily complete a search dropped by 75 percent.

The majority of calls at the Hillsboro Fire Department are wildland fires, Steketee said.

“You probably wouldn’t use it on a grass fire or any wildland type of fire,” he said.

“We get calls quite often for smoke alarms sounding or someone might smell smoke. The thermal would make our job-finding the source of the smoke smell or the source of why the smoke alarm is sounding-quicker and easier.”

It’s not unusual for a community the size of Hillsboro to own a thermal-imaging camera.

“As far as I know, communities our size are doing everything they can to obtain thermal-imaging cameras,” Steketee said.

And is the cost justifiable for a thermal-imaging camera that may sit idle the majority of time?

“It’s a life-saving tool,” Steketee said. “There’s no price on a life. If it saves one life, it’s more than worth it.”

To learn more about the Hillsboro Fire Department fund for a thermal-imaging camera or to contribute, call Steketee at 947-3556.

More from article archives
Doubles team leads HHS to third place
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JENNIFER PROFFITT Led by its No. 1 doubles team, the...
Read More