NFPA 1801: Standard on Thermal Imagers

As you may or may not be aware, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been hard at work over the last several years developing a standard for thermal imagers. While this work has been tedious and trying, it has resulted in a published...


As you may or may not be aware, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been hard at work over the last several years developing a standard for thermal imagers. While this work has been tedious and trying, it has resulted in a published standard. NFPA 1801: Standard on Thermal...


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As you may or may not be aware, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been hard at work over the last several years developing a standard for thermal imagers. While this work has been tedious and trying, it has resulted in a published standard. NFPA 1801: Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service, 2010 edition, was officially published Dec. 5, 2009; however, the published document was flawed (more on that later in the column) and therefore not testable.

I have resisted writing anything about the standard until the corrections are made, but there appears to be a growing interest in the market as to the implications of the standard as well as a multitude of misleading information. It is for those reasons that we will cover the new standard in a two-part series, beginning this month with an overview of the standards origin and development as well as a state of the industry. Next month, we will cover the details of what is actually in the standard and what it means to thermal imagers in general.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a firefighter as well as an employee of a thermal imager manufacturer, so I am intimately involved in both sides of the standard; however, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I will refrain from opinion throughout this series and stick only to the facts.

Standard's Origin And Development

The genesis of the standard dates back to December 2004. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hosted a workshop, "Thermal Imaging Research Needs for First Responders." The workshop attendees spanned the fire service gamut, including many firefighters and officers as well as NIST scientists, manufacturer representatives and other industry leaders. After several technical presentations, attendees broke out into focus groups to discuss, debate, argue and otherwise hash out answers to the following four questions:

  1. What technological advances are needed?
  2. What are the research needs for first responders?
  3. What performance metrics are needed and how do they differ from current methods?
  4. What standards are needed?

The results of these group discussions (see http://fire.nist.gov/bfrlpubs/fire05/PDF/f05036.pdf) were combined to create a prioritized list of the top 10 topics in need of further research and development (see Figure 1 within that PDF). These findings would ultimately prove a guiding force in the development of the 1801 standard.

In September 2006, a Technical Committee on Electronics Safety Equipment created a Task Group on Fire Service Thermal Imagers to further investigate the conclusions of the NIST workshop. This Task Group quickly determined the need for a full-blown, stand-alone standard on thermal imaging; thus, the NFPA 1801 Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service was formed. After several years of sweat and toil, 1801 was entered into the 2009 standards development cycle and ultimately published last December.

State of the Industry

So where are we today? The answer is not as straightforward as one might expect. Although the standard has been published, it contains several unintentional errors that render it unusable for testing and certification of thermal imagers. If you are unfamiliar with the way NFPA certification works, an NFPA technical committee produces a standard that contains many criteria to which a product must adhere. The NFPA committee validates these criteria by developing tests that can be repeated by a third-party lab. A manufacturer that wants to have a product "certified as compliant" submits that product to a lab capable of running the test as outlined by the NFPA.

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