Standard Will Change Thermal Imagers

BALTIMORE, Md. -- The current inventory of thermal imaging cameras available to departments can be confusing to navigate due to unique features on each model.

With the creation of NFPA 1801 -- released at the beginning of this year -- this should soon change as the features on the devices will be standardized.

Robert Athanas and Robert Knabbe, who are both FDNY firefighters and work for TIC training and consulting firm SAF-IR, Inc., were at Firehouse Expo today to talk about what the new standard means for the fire service.

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"Thermal imagers are greatly underutilized," Athanas said, noting that the varied features on each model creates confusion among firefighters.

He said this issue isn't as prevalent with consumer products. "We could swap car keys right now and jump into each other's cars and we would know the layout."

He said the size and format of the outer shell of the camera might look the same, but the core of the device and the symbols and colorization used vary from model to model.

Another problem is that if a department wants to purchase the same camera five years later, they can't because the technology has changed.

The main problem the fire service has ran into, he said, is that it is only a "pinhead" of the TIC industry.

He said that during the process, it was suggested that the fire service should just tell the manufacturers what they want instead of devising a standard.

"Our market share is too small. They'd just tell us to go pound sand."

According to Athanas, between two and three thousand cores are created each week while the fire service purchases less than three thousand per year.

"We have not had the opportunity to get a core that suits our needs," he said. "We're the bottom feeders; we get the leftovers."

He says that NFPA 1801 should be able to change that.

"The standard is helping us while still allowing for innovation."

The standard is five-plus years in the making. In 2004, NIST held a workshop including manufacturers as well as fire officials and it was determined that there was a need for standardization.

"We had to start with the basics," Athanas said. "They didn't even have the same colored On/Off buttons."

At first, manufacturers were protective of their products, he said, but quickly warmed to the idea of standardization.

NFPA 1801 includes universal icon areas, symbols and color-coded notifications, along with uniform buttons and functions.

There will be a "Basic" package and "Basic Plus" package offered on the cameras. This will allow for innovation, but also allow users to be able to revert back to a easy-to-use setting on all models.

The standard requires all potential devices to pass a gauntlet of tests simulating the conditions it would endure on the fireground.

He said that one downside of the standard is that it will most likely increase prices in an uncertain economic time.

"Manufacturers believe it will lead to an increase in sales though and while the price will go up, it should come back down," he said. "By the time it all shakes out, it'll all be better for the fire service."

The NFPA has called this one of the most technical documents it was put out to date. Athanas says this has made it difficult for manufacturers to comply with it, but that they are getting there and models are expected to be available for purchase by the end of the year.