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How to buy thermal imagers

By Billy Greenwood
FETC Services

The research and purchase of a 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 purchasing a camera through an acquired grant, hard earned fundraiser money or taxpayer's cash from the capital improvement program, the costs associated with this purchase justifies creating a small thermal imager committee. The committee should steer the process of research, contacting manufacturer representatives and scheduling camera demos for hands-on evaluation.

I would also recommend acquiring as much literature as possible on each brand, assigning a committee member to research each product thoroughly before contacting the manufacturer representative. It means once a product demo has been scheduled, the committee will be educated on that specific product and can maximize the demo time with the representative. Once the demonstration is completed, always inquire if the demo camera can be left, so your membership can further review and evaluate the product without time constraints.

The committee as a whole should have basic knowledge of how a thermal imager works and understand the different technologies available to us from the industry. Not all thermal imagers are designed the same. For instance, your 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 view on the display screen.

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 my experience, firefighters may at times get hooked on the latest “bells and whistles” that a manufacturer has recently developed. While these can be nice to have, they may be seldom used in the field.
Here are the top 10 things to consider when buying a thermal imager:

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

7. Upgradeability

8. Apparatus mountable, apparatus charging capabilities

9. Cost

10. Warranty

There are three common types of engine technology used in fire service thermal imagers:

BST (Barium Strontium Titanate) technology
BST technology is the most common and is known for its past performance within the fire service.

VOx (Vanadium Oxide) technology
This is just one type of microbolometer. VOx microbolometers are now very popular in the fire service for their good quality image.

Amorphous silicon (aSi) technology
This is the newest technology afforded to us and is also another type of microbolometer. It 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.

Besides the purchasing 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 its capabilities and/or limitations.

  • Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or e-mail products@firerescue1.com with your feedback.

Lt. Billy Greenwood is a Pro-Board Certified NFPA 1041 Instructor-III, NFPA 1021 Fire Officer-II, NH Certified Firefighter-III, Rapid Intervention Team Instructor, NFPA 1003 & FAA Airport Rescue Firefighter, NREMT-Intermediate and EMT-I/C. He is a 16-year veteran of the fire service with experience in various volunteer, paid-call, and career fire departments throughout New Hampshire. He is currently working as a career lieutenant with the Keene, NH, Fire Department and owns advanced firefighter training and leadership company, FETC Services.

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