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Why every firefighter needs a thermal imaging camera

As TIC technology becomes more advanced and more affordable, it’s time to consider equipping every member of your crew


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Why every firefighter needs a thermal imaging camera

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By Robert Avsec for FireRescueOne BrandFocus

It's difficult, if not impossible, for today's generation of firefighters to imagine what it was like to fight structure fires before SCBA use became commonplace. And yet we're only talking 98 years since the first commercial SCBA appeared in fire stations in 1920. (Though it wouldn't be until the late 1970s before SCBA use began to gain widespread acceptance in the fire service in the U.S.).

Like SCBA, the introduction of thermal imaging cameras (TICs) has been hindered by the high cost of TICs, as well as a fire service culture that’s not only slow to adopt new technologies but creates barriers to adoption. Remember when veteran firefighters scoffed at the use of ear flaps on helmets and protective Nomex hoods? Those older firefighters would tell you that flaps and hoods wouldn't let you feel the heat, so you wouldn’t know when to get out.

A thermal imaging camera should be as essential as SCBA
A thermal imaging camera should be as essential as SCBA

Cost is a common barrier to adoption of new tools and technologies. But TIC manufacturers have reduced the size and weight of TICs and added additional features (e.g., recording capabilities), while drastically reducing the cost per unit. With a model now on the market for under $1,500, a TIC for every riding position on a piece of fire apparatus is fast becoming a real possibility for many fire departments.

Of course, the fire service traditionalists have already begun to attack such a notion. Heard any of these comments lately?

  • “Firefighters will become too dependent on the TIC. What happens when it fails? Then, where are you?”
  • “Firefighters will be too focused on the TIC and not pay attention to what's going on in the room that's on fire. Just look at them and their phones!”
  • “TICS don't put out fires!”

Short sounds like some of these “oldies” from our firefighting past:

  • “Radios don't put out fires!”
  • “If you get in there and put the fire out, you don't have to worry about breathing smoke!”
  • “You gonna waste time putting on that air pack or you gonna grab a hose and do something’?”

Then there's the camp the grudgingly accept TICS but only one for the officer on the truck. Really? Makes about as much sense is only one set of SCBA per truck, no? Or only one PASS device per crew.

Your SCBA is your life support equipment when you enter an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health) atmosphere, right? Well it's time we also consider thermal imaging cameras as life support equipment for firefighters. This equipment enables the firefighter to “see” the fire and keep tabs on the enemy until it is vanquished (extinguished). After all, the best tool for reducing firefighter deaths and injuries while combatting interior structure fires is the one that keeps them from getting into a jam in the first place.

A TIC for every firefighter

Firefighter Life Safety Initiative No. 8 (one of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives from Everyonegoeshome.com) states: Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

Since 1978, FLIR has been on the forefront in the development of high-performance, low-cost infrared (thermal) imaging systems for the detection of the infrared energy (heat) that is emitted by people, objects and materials. By the late 1990s, FLIR was introducing its first TIC for fire service duty, enabling firefighters to “see” in total darkness and through the smoke of structural firefighting.

FLIR has embraced Firefighter Life Safety Initiative No. 8 and is on a mission to make a high-quality TIC a part of every structural firefighter’s protective ensemble, aka, turnout gear. The introduction of the FLIR K2 makes that possible by providing capability, ruggedness and reliability at an affordable price.

The FLIR K2 weighs just 1.54 pounds and is designed to meet the demands of structural firefighting, with features including:

  • Single-button controls that can be used with heavy structural firefighting gloves.
  • Multi-Spectral Dynamic Imaging (MSX), a proprietary FLIR technology that enhances the clarity of thermal images by adding in visual details in real time. 
  • Durability (can withstand a 2-meter drop onto concrete).
  • Ingress Penetration rating of IP67 (functional after submersion in water for 30 minutes).
  • Fully operational up to 500°F for up to 3 minutes.

More affordable than you think, especially compared to the potential cost of an injury or LODD, the FLIR K2 shows its worth as part of any department’s firefighter life support equipment.

The fire service has a duty to look towards the future and embrace the changes in technology, especially as the technology becomes more affordable and better designed for use. These advancements will not only help to better orient oneself in a building or find the seat of a fire, but will give each member of the crew another vital piece of equipment designed to make sure they go home safe at the end of the call. We no longer rely on one SCBA for a crew, so we should consider not relying on just one TIC, either.

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