Evaluating Thermal Imagers


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:

  • Standard and optional features.
  • Operating procedures, including unit activation, battery changing and charging, and use of additional features.
  • Service issues, including length of warranty (clarify what it covers), availability of extended warranty and service turnaround (in and out of warranty).
  • Performance characteristics, durability, color pallets, etc.
  • Support offered as part of the overall package, including training (clarify the type of training: 20 minutes of how to turn it on, or two hours of how TIs work?), fundraising support, web resources and ongoing education.

For convenience, attempt to schedule all presentations on the same day or the same week, with all evaluation committee members present to ask questions and document their impressions of each manufacturer. Ideally, committee members should use a checklist or table to document their conclusions and to help ensure that a fair and equal comparison of the TIs is made. If the committee has lingering questions after the salesperson's departure, those questions can be captured in writing and sent to the salesperson for follow up.

Step 4 — The real-world test. The real-world test, or hands-on evaluation, is the most critical part of your evaluation process. While one TI may stand out in the classroom, your final decision could be different after you get the opportunity to use it under realistic conditions. As with the classroom presentations, aim to evaluate all of the units on the same day. This will allow each unit to be compared side-by-side under similar conditions.

Careful planning and preparation are essential to a successful hands-on evaluation. Before the evaluation, decide how you will test the features that mean the most to your department, and develop a checklist to make sure that committee members are using the same criteria. Test each feature of the unit under various conditions and scenarios, such as live fire, simulated hazmat incidents, fire-alarm investigation and outdoor searches. Do not fall into the trap of "sitting around the campfire." Typically, hose teams will extinguish any fire they find so the TI will spend very little of its operational life directly evaluating fire.

Have each member write notes about each TI immediately after using it. To help quantify the evaluation process, encourage members to rank specific factors using a number scale. Develop the scale and factor sheet in advance, grading such aspects as ease of use, performance in the fire, ability to carry other equipment, etc.

Step 5 — The decision. Following the completion of the classroom and hands-on evaluations, it is time to decide which TI best meets the department's needs. Compare the written notes and total the scored rankings. If there are specific features that are more valuable, you may want to consider weighing them more heavily. Include non-tangible issues such as service and support that will not only help you get your units into operation, but will assist you in keeping them in service for years to come. Consider exactly how repairs are handled and the overall support you will receive. Do not forget the information you gathered from other departments about their experiences with TIs. Your neighbor may be the best proof of what happens after you sign the purchase order. Once you have determined which TI you will buy, place your order or formulate the bid documents, which we will discuss in more detail in a later column.

Despite the wider acceptance of TIs in the fire service, there is still much misinformation and misunderstanding about the technology. Potential buyers must perform the proper amount of preparation and evaluation to ensure that they purchase the best overall value possible. Remember that value is not just price. Like any other capital expenditure, departments should expect their units to provide years of reliable service. It is not easy to make a proper selection effort, but time well spent on the process will ensure that the fire department and the public it serves will reap long-term benefits from these valuable tools.

BRAD HARVEY is the Thermal Imaging Product Manager at Bullard. He is a veteran of public safety as a firefighter, police officer and paramedic and is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor. Harvey has worked as a high-angle rescue instructor and is a certified rescue technician and fire instructor. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you may e-mail him at brad_harvey@bullard.com.