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Holograms Add New Dimension to Fighting Fire

An Italian researcher is developing a device that could someday give firefighters a 3-D scene of the fires they fight — and the people they're working to save.

The use of thermal imaging in fighting fires is 25 years old this year — the first documented life saved by the technology goes back to a New York City fire in 1988. Though it took years for thermal imaging technology to become widespread due to cost, once it was well established in firefighting, a direct connection between their use and the preservation of life was clear. And now, a new device being developed by researchers could further augment this live-saving technology.

In Italy, Pietro Ferraro of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) Istituto Nazionale di Ottica (National Research Council - National Institute of Optics), is using hologram technology to create three-dimensional images that would allow firefighters to see through smoke and flames during a rescue.

Though thermal imaging can see through smoke, the presence of flames can obscure objects, such as people in need of rescue. Instead of using lenses to generate an image, Ferraro’s hologram device uses laser beams and something called numerical processing, so the device can see through flames and generate a 3-D image of a room. If somehow combined with thermal imaging, the technology could provide yet another layer of information to firefighters.

“So far, the experiments have been carried out in a laboratory, but simulating ‘outdoor conditions,’" Ferraro said via email. "No anti-vibration systems have been used and no dark-rooms have been employed. For these reasons, we are strongly confident about the possibility to bring this technology out of the lab. We think that in a few years, these systems could be applied for fixed installations, for example in hospitals, schools tunnels or even highways.” 

The software behind Ferraro’s experiments works quickly, he said, and a single frame of imagery can be constructed in less than half a second. The invention can scan for data and process the data in “quasi-real time,” he said, generating a rapidly updated 3-D image of a room or area.

Because the software demands a relatively small amount of processing power from a computer, the processing could be performed by a common laptop or mobile device. “We strongly think that this part can be performed at a fire scene," he said, "maybe by a host connected from a mobile station outside the building."

Ferraro’s invention isn’t available yet, but Capt. Jon Muir, public information officer of the Orange County Fire Authority in California, said it sounds potentially useful. “Any technology that will assist or aid us in doing what we need to do,” Muir said, is something worth looking into. For 15 years, Muir said he’s been using thermal imaging, along with others, to make fighting fires safer.

Thermal imaging has three main uses, Muir said. It can allow firefighters to measure the temperature of a burning building and identify what stage the fire is in. Thermal imaging can also help firefighters understand the layout of a building and spot weak structural elements before they fall. Perhaps most importantly, thermal imaging can be used to find victims amid the flames. In this way, thermal imaging has saved lives.

But sometimes, Muir said, flames can make it difficult to see everything, so if holograms could be combined with thermal imaging to create a more complete picture, it would be a welcome addition.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.