Small Device Gives Firefighters Eyes Through Smoke

The Mount Airy Fire Department in North Carolina says their new thermal imaging camera can pay big dividends in terms of saving lives and assisting in other emergencies.

by Tom Joyce, The Mount Airy News / June 2, 2015

(TNS) -- It resembles something one might see in a science-fiction movie: a small yellow device that could pass as a ray gun or maybe even a lightsaber.

In contrast to its size, the curious-looking implement has a hefty price tag — about $6,300. But the Mount Airy Fire Department in North Carolina says the thermal imaging camera, one of its latest equipment additions, can pay big dividends in terms of saving lives and assisting in other emergencies such as searches for lost persons.

“It gives us eyes through the smoke,” Mount Airy Fire Chief Zane Poindexter said of the camera that he displayed during a city public safety committee meeting earlier this spring.

With all the confusion and chaos that can occur during a fire, having such a pair of “eyes” available can be vital since time is of the essence if someone is trapped inside a burning structure.

“You can quickly scan the room to see if anybody is in there, maybe lying on a bed or in the floor,” the fire chief explained.

Thermal imaging cameras allow firefighters to see areas of heat due to rendering infrared radiation as visible light. They can quickly pinpoint the base of a blaze and also see the “heat signature” of someone possibly obscured to the naked eye.

Before such technology was available, searching a single smoky room might have tied up two or three firefighters at a time, Poindexter said.

“But you can just take the camera, do a quick search and be into the next room,” he said of the hand-held device that is constructed with a heat- and water-resistant housing and sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of fire operations.

“We can expedite the search of that house that much quicker.”

An apartment fire in late April which displaced 35 residents of a small apartment complex at 1007 S. Main St., was tailor-made for the thermal imaging camera, Poindexter said.

“With a fire like that, we’ve got to make sure everybody is out — that’s the primary thing.”

Thermal imaging cameras also can be useful in detecting smoldering hot spots inside a wall which might not be readily apparent. “And that saves us a lot of time,” the fire chief said.

“It gets used on most every fire call we have,” he added Monday of the camera, not only cases in which flames are visible but those in which a smell of smoke is detected inside a building. Along with indicating where a fire might be smoldering, it can pinpoint where light ballasts that have gone bad or an electric motor is jammed up and overheating.

Other uses

The thermal imaging camera now used by the Mount Airy Fire Department is a modern version of equipment it previously relied on, which was acquired in the mid-to-late-1990s. The cost of that original thermal imaging equipment was much higher, around $19,000, with the chief explaining that the lower expense of the new camera is reflective of how price tags for digital equipment tend to drop over time.

That cost factor and the intricacies of the modern devices are making them increasingly popular among firefighting units around the nation.

“There are more sophisticated models out there, but that one we considered to be more economical, best suited to our department,” Poindexter said of the camera now under deployment.

In addition to aiding firefighting operations, the new device can assist other public safety functions locally.

This includes aiding law enforcement personnel in searching for missing persons, and those who don’t want to be found after “jump and run” situations in efforts to escape police.

Such an individual who might be hiding in the woods in a pile of leaves can be located via the heat signature their body temperature produces, especially on a cold night, the fire chief said.

The camera is equipped with a USB port, enabling data from it to be downloaded onto a computer for training purposes or evidence, Poindexter mentioned.

“It’s a very useful tool.”

©2015 The Mount Airy News (Mount Airy, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.