As thermal imagers have become ubiquitous in the fire service today, many departments are foregoing the rigorous evaluations that marked the early phase of TI adoption. Many departments just keep on purchasing what they have always purchased or assume that one TI is much like any other TI...
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As thermal imagers have become ubiquitous in the fire service today, many departments are foregoing the rigorous evaluations that marked the early phase of TI adoption. Many departments just keep on purchasing what they have always purchased or assume that one TI is much like any other TI — a "once you've seen one, you've seen them all" approach. This can lead to disappointment and/or confusion after the sale.
As TI technology evolves and the market matures, many manufacturers are differentiating their products through features and benefits. Spend enough time in an evaluation so that you can sort the "bells and whistles" from the valuable features and benefits. The process for evaluation and selection is the same today as it ever was, with two exceptions. One exception is the fact that you have more experience under your belt now. You have a frame of reference for this purchase that you might not have had at the last purchase. The second exception is the rapid change occurring in technology and features in the industry.
Let's follow the steps outlined below, with modifications for those who have owned a thermal imager before.
Step 1 — Team up and learn. Start by selecting a team of people to manage the TI evaluation. Diversity is important here. Committee members should be of different ranks, responsibilities and time on the job. This variety ensures that the selected unit is the actual unit that best meets the fire department's needs.
Poll the members of your department on what they like or don't like about your current thermal imager. Be specific and feel free to ask leading questions. Most of the time, when asked a general question about likes or dislikes, many people are indifferent in their response; however, they will give more specific or detailed answers when asked more specific questions such as, "Do you like the size of our current unit?"
Step 2 — Do your homework. Initiate the homework phase by gathering information from distributors and TI manufacturers, with the goal of identifying all of the current products available. You can split some of the responsibilities, but several sources of information can be checked in fairly short order:
- Check each manufacturer's website for information on products and services.
- Ask other local fire departments what they use and what their experience has been with service and support after the sale. Make sure you also talk to the members of the engine company to which a TI is assigned. Ask how well the unit has handled the rigors of firefighting and the value of various features on the unit.
- Check Firehouse.com forums to see what others are complaining about or complimenting.
- Google the manufacturer and see what type of returns you receive.
Although you are seeking information from the outside, you obviously do not want to build your opinion or recommendation on this. It simply serves as data points and things to investigate during your evaluation.
After researching what is available as well as what other departments have found useful, develop an initial outline specifying what you believe are the critical features for a TI. Differentiate between "essential features" (such as heat and water resistance) and "desirable features" (such as two-hour battery life). Be careful about listing a feature as essential. Many times, there are trade-offs. For instance, one way to make a thermal imager lighter is to reduce the size of the battery. This will certainly lighten the imager, but will also reduce run time, so make sure that an "essential feature" will not deprive you of something else you want. Once the list is complete, review the units available and determine if you can immediately eliminate any of them from your evaluation process.
Step 3 — The classroom test. Once you have narrowed the field to a manageable number of potential units, it is time to gain more detailed information and first-hand experience. Schedule a day for each manufacturer or local representative (or several of them) to make a "classroom presentation." Plan on 30 minutes in order to give the salesperson time to show you the features and benefits of the TI and give your committee time to ask questions. Understand the following: