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:
- What technological advances are needed?
- What are the research needs for first responders?
- What performance metrics are needed and how do they differ from current methods?
- 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.
In the case of the 1801 standard, there are several errors in the document that prevent an outside lab from replicating the test called for in the document or using the formulas included in the standard for calculating results, which renders such tests and the results meaningless. So although the standard exists and has been officially published, there is no way to become "certified as compliant." The errors are mostly clerical in nature and none of them are seen as significant hurdles to overcome; however, the errors do render the document impotent at this time. At the time this column went to press, the NFPA was planning to attempt correction via Technical Interim Amendments (TIA) and other measures, but the timing of these corrections was uncertain.
Adding to this complication is the fact that many people in the fire service think that if a standard has been published, then compliant products should also be available. This is almost never the case with NFPA standards. Standard initiations and revisions almost always contain new product requirements, so when a standard is finalized and published, there is typically a lag before the new requirements are integrated into existing products.
Aggravating the situation are the actions of some manufacturers. Although the thermal imaging market is dominated by very capable and reputable manufacturers, miscommunication and misunderstandings will sometimes happen. In the manufacturing world, projects like NFPA standards are often relegated to product managers and development engineers. Communication with the field can, at times, be sparse and incomplete. Whatever the cause, there have been cases of misrepresentation, both on the small scale and the large, where certain company representatives have implied that their thermal imagers are fully NFPA compliant. Nothing could be further from the truth for several reasons:
- There is currently no testing lab anywhere in the world that is prepared to complete certification tests, due to the lack of equipment and validated procedures.
- Even if there was a lab capable, the document still must be corrected so the labs know how to conduct the appropriate tests.
- The requirements of 1801 are set sufficiently high to bar any and all products currently on the market from being certified. Significant development efforts will be required of all manufacturers for certification to be achieved.
Be wary of statements regarding NFPA compliance. Stick to the facts. If someone indicates to you that a thermal imager is indeed NFPA certified, ask to see the documentation. If someone were to indicate to you that a thermal imager is "nearly certified," please keep in mind that it is like saying you are "somewhat pregnant." As far as NFPA certification goes, you are or you aren't. There is no "nearly" or "almost."
A lot of people put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to bring this standard to fruition. If you have ever been involved in developing an NFPA standard, you understand how grueling a process it can be. Developing standards around technical products is even more tedious as the products and technology are constantly evolving. My hat is off to everyone that worked so hard to complete this task.
Although there are currently no certified products available, there are also no slouches when it comes to manufacturers in this market. This market is dominated by very capable and competent manufacturers who are undoubtedly working their hearts out to produce compliant products. With 1801, the fire service has spoken. It is now our job as manufacturers to heed that call and develop these products.
While there is widespread disagreement over whether the 1801 standard is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing, the fact of the matter is, for good or for bad, it has been published. Part 2 of this column will look at the various requirements that the 1801 standard imposes on thermal imagers. Some requirements you will likely appreciate; others you may not like. Either way, we will explore the details and you can decide for yourself.
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 email@example.com.