The price and way we use thermal imaging technology is changing significantly. What does that mean for the firefighting industry, and how could these developments aid firefighters?
Thermal imaging technology has been incorporated as an everyday tool for most fire fighters; the primary strength is the cameras ability to detect heat signatures – enabling fighters to locate individuals in extremely low visibility conditions (in darkness and smoke) and providing crucial insights for search and rescue of civilians, and potentially trapped team members.
Thermal imaging cameras can also be a help with the initial assessment of a scene, in terms of both understanding a building’s structure and hotspots, which means the strategy for tackling the fire can be more informed. This can be especially helpful if the fire is isolated or hidden within the structure.
It’s been well established that thermal imaging cameras are an essential for modern day firefighting because their use really can make a difference in saving a life. In the United States, the NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, has repeatedly recommended the use of thermal imaging cameras as best practice. For example, after an investigation into a firefighter fatality in 2011, NOISH recommended that fire departments should use thermal imaging cameras during firefighting operations and has listed it as one of the items of minimum equipment that should be readily available to a rapid intervention crew.
Advantages of Thermal Imaging Cameras Becoming Cheaper
The steep price of thermal imaging technology has been a limitation of it becoming widely adopted in firefighting.However, this technology is becoming cheaper and more readily available – thermal imaging cameras can now even be bought as an add-on to an iPhone.
The image quality of the iPhone thermal imaging case is unlikely to be of a high enough calibre for use in this professional context, but this does represent a shift in the market, where thermal imaging technology can be bought for a few hundred instead of thousands.
Currently it’s unlikely for every fire fighter to have thermal imaging equipment, it’s generally shared amongst a team, but imagine the difference that could be made if every fire fighter had the information thermal imaging can provide, no matter where they were in the field – even it was at a lower resolution for the sake of being economical.
If each team member had a thermal imaging camera, not only could this speed up operations, but there could be a real time live feed to a central system monitored by another individual. This could add another pair of eyes with videos from various angles from the team members in the field, which could provide even more information about the scene to avoid dangers and create a more effective strategy.
Camera’s with Better Usability
Thermal Imaging cameras’ real strength is in the extra intel they can provide, which enables fire fighters to make more informed decisions. Part of the challenge of ensuring this technology gets used to the full extent is making it user friendly within an emergency environment.
This can come from simple adaptions of the technology; for instance, thermal imaging cameras within helmets are often preferred because of the hands-free functionality. If a thermal imaging camera can be adapted to a light simple iPhone case, surely it can be changed into other similarly convenient incarnations that might be of benefit to firefighters and emergency service individuals.
If it was standard issue for fight fighting equipment to come with a cheaper and integrated thermal imaging camera, more lives could be saved on a daily basis. Whilst projects like this may not seem like a revolutionary change to the technology, smart innovation in the usability of the tech has the potential to make a significant change in the outcomes of emergency scenarios.
Overall, simply more availability and use of thermal imaging technology may make the biggest difference when it comes to firefighting; technological advancements and lowering price tags could help this become a realistic option.
Innovative Developments of Thermal Imaging Technology for Fire Fighting
There are projects in several areas looking into this kind of development, and trying to assess how to best utilise thermal imaging technology to save lives and control fires.
Fire Detection and Prevention Sensors
Although a lot less funding goes towards fire prevention as opposed to fire containment, monitoring, early detection and prevention are the most effective tools in stopping a forest fire and limiting its damage. One device that is now being adopted in Santa Barbara in the USA (because of the areas high risk of forest fires), are known as “Flamesniffer” units.
They are placed on electrical poles within at risk areas and utilise infrared and thermal imaging for a mile in all directions to detect possible signs of fire. The cameras are only activated when their smoke detecting sensors are triggered. The cameras then send images to the closest fire station. These units can withstand up to 485 °C temperature, so they can transmit helpful images for a considerable amount of time even if they get caught in the fire. They cost $20,000 US dollars per unit; at that price it is unlikely this piece of technology will be widely adopted anytime soon in lower risk areas.
Aircraft’s with Thermal Imaging
Colorado have recently invested $20 million dollars in their own air fleet, two of these aircrafts feature thermal imaging technology and will be partially utilised to aid emergency services with forest fires. This technology is not new, it has been used in the military for over a decade, but it is the first time it’s been purposely adopted for firefighting efforts in this way.
Having thermal imaging integrated into aircrafts offers two distinct advantages, they help with detecting the fire earlier, when time matters most. Part of the catalyst for this investment was the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, where it took almost 6 days for the source of the smoke to be found by which point a vast amount of damage had already occurred. Theoretically this technology should enable pilots to fly over areas and quickly locate the source of smoke, hopefully meaning the fire is dealt with and contained more quickly, leading to less damage.
The other advantage this use of thermal imaging technology is that the planes are specifically made to withstand pretty much any condition, even flying through smoke, meaning they can easily provide crews with real time data of hotspots and the progression of the fire. This type of information is vital when trying to plan a successful firefighting strategy.
Scouting Robots that create a 3D Image of the Scene
Engineers from UC San Diego are currently developing a scouting robot that could become an indispensable tool for the future of firefighting. These robot scouts utilise thermal imaging, stereo RGB cameras and other sensors to provide fire fighters with a 3D scene of a burning building in real time. Also providing information about the state of the fire including sensing volatile gases, temperatures and structural integrity all while looking for survivors. The prototypes are Segway-esque devices which are autonomous, can climb stairs and can work collaboratively with other scouting robots to provide a full picture of the scene in a very short period of time.
If this technology was to become available to the public, affordable and widely utilised, it would undoubtedly help save lives, and if the protocol became for robot scouts to assess the scene it has the potential to significantly lower fatality rates of fire fighters.
Thermal Imaging technology has already aided firefighters in saving many lives, but it has the potential to help save so many more. With all the adaptions and developments of this technology it will likely become an even more integral tool for fire fighters in the future.
For more information, go to www.isswww.co.uk/thermal-cameras/
Written by Rachel Hemsley on behalf of Instrument Sales and Services. [email protected]