The research and purchase of a new thermal imager is not a simple task and is definitely one that should not be taxed upon a single person within your fire department. Whether you are purchasing a camera through an acquired fire grant, hard earned fundraiser money or your taxpayer's budget from a capital improvement program, the costs associated with this purchase justifies creating a small, dynamic TIC committee.
The committee should steer the process of research through contacting manufacturer representatives and scheduling camera demos for hands-on evaluation. I would also recommend that the committee acquire as much information as possible on each brand and model before the camera arrives. The committee chair should assign a member to research a specific brand / model thoroughly before contacting the manufacturer's representative. This provides a POC point of contact within the committee that can answer specific questions once demo unit has arrived. The POC can maximize the "demo time" with the representative. Once the demonstration has been completed, always inquire if the demo camera can be left at the station so your membership can further review, ask questions and evaluate the product without specific time constraints.
The committee as a whole should have basic knowledge of how a thermal imager works and understand the different technologies available to the fire service from the industry. Not all TICs are designed the same! A well educated committee should understand that infrared energy seen by a thermal camera will be focused onto a focal plane array (FPA). The electronics that are connected to the FPA will create what some fire service instructors describe as "the engine", this engine senses energy, calculates the relative differences between objects and then prepares that data for your eyes to see on the viewable display screen. The image for which we as firefighters see is not like the one on your home movie camera. The image displayed by a TIC, is actually a reproduction of the images the FPA interprets.
There are three common types of engine technology used in fire service thermal imagers, the first and oldest being (BST) - Barium Strontium Titanate technology. BST technology is the most common and is known for its past performance within the fire service. The next is (VOx) - Vanadium Oxide technology, which is just one type of microbolometer. VOx microbolometers are now very popular in the fire service because of their quality image. The newest technology afforded to us is amorphous silicon (aSi), which is also another type of microbolometer and is well known for its compact size and relatively low cost to the end user.
Remember, with each of these different types of technologies you may find advantages to your specific organizational needs as well as a wide difference in the costs associated with each internal technology. When charging a TIC committee to evaluate the potential purchase of a new camera, I suggest they focus on 10 key features to create a solid product evaluation. In our experience of using many different TIC's through constant training and real world operations, firefighters may at times get hooked on the latest “bells and whistles” that a manufacturer has recently patented. While these can be "nice to have" option, they may be seldom used in the field. Keep the committee focused on buying the right product for your department's specific needs by concentrating on the following:
1. Size and weight
2. Ease of use, body ergonomics
3. Battery life
4. Ruggedness – Durability – Field proven
5. Display screen: size, resolution, color, advanced options
6. Temperature Reading Sensor vs. Pyrometer
8. Apparatus mountable, apparatus charging capabilities
Besides the purchase of the camera itself, there's another important aspect to consider – training your firefighters how to actually use it. Let's think about opening our mindset to not only focus on how many of these cameras we can purchase for X amount of money. The thermal imager is only one tool in the firefighter’s toolbox and we all know this can only be an advantage if the end user is fully trained and understands the capabilities and/or limitations of the camera.
Firefighters need to know how to interpret images! Many simply don't. Why? Well many use the camera in the fire station or in the basement of the firehouse with a temperature controlled 60 degrees F. This training environment is not going to yield an image that they will actually see in a building fire. The FPA can produce images that one minute a victim can be seen as white hot and in the next frame the same victim can be depicted as darker or black on the display screen. Version and / or Inversion. Reading fire gases and flow paths are critical for determining if the occupancy is vent limited. How many times has a firefighter reported that their display screen "froze up" again or the entire display screen went all white? Many who have witnessed this, often times do not know the reason for it but continue to press on. Once again, training for the environment they are expected to work in is the only way! The tool is only as good as the education set forth and provided to the end user. Image interpretation is critical for maximizing the not only the tool's capabilities but firefighter safety as well.
There is so much more to know about the camera beyond the manufacturer’s in-service training. Firefighters deserve real-world image interpretation and a quality sequence for safe operational use, none of which can be completed in the training room or in the chief's office. I would personally give up purchasing an additional camera in a multi-camera package in lieu of acquiring department-wide training from a professional company specializing in educating users on thermal imagers. Remember when a problem arises and a life is on the line, it will be the fully trained and mentally prepared firefighter who will efficiently locate victims faster, by being able to properly utilize the thermal imager.
We hope this article enlightens you on the importance of establishing a committee when purchasing a thermal imager. We are not in the business of selling cameras... but we are in the business of educating firefighters on how to use them properly. Take care and stay safe my friends.
Billy Greenwood; Tap the Box on Fire Engineering Radio
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