It's funny how we firefighters approach equipment maintenance. On the one hand, we want a new engine company, replete with the latest advances and features. On the other hand, we like keeping our crusty, battered fire helmets that have long outlived their protective capabilities. We will meticulously wash and service our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks after each fire, yet many of us must be forced to wash our turnout gear twice a year.
Because preventive maintenance and planning is not standardized in the fire service, the care of thermal imagers (TIs) has slipped into a gray area that fire departments must consciously plan to manage. A fire department must address three general areas in caring for its TIs: regular care, preventive care and financial care.
There are a number of activities that must be done periodically in the firehouse to ensure that the thermal imager performs at its best, for the longest lifetime possible. These company-level tasks can be divided into daily, weekly and monthly duties, depending on the activity level of the fire company using the TI. Key areas for attention are:
- Daily, ensure that the lens, display cover and operating buttons are cleared of significant debris.
- Daily, ensure that all batteries are properly charged and/or charging.
- Daily, verify that all assigned accessories are present and are functioning.
- Daily, inspect the outer shell of the TI to identify any cracks or misalignments that may allow water infiltration.
- Weekly, ensure all exterior screws are properly tightened and that all gaskets appear pliable and intact.
- Weekly or Monthly, wipe the lens with a soft, damp cloth to remove latent soot and grime build-up.
- Monthly, exercise the batteries, preferably with a battery conditioner/analyzer or by fully draining and then recharging them. Remember not to start draining the second battery until the first is fully charged for response to an incident.
- Monthly, check all other items and accessories for the TI to ensure proper fit and function. This includes handles, hand straps and carrying straps. Test wireless transmitters, computer connections, image download functions, etc.
As a department develops these checklists and maintenance plans, it should consult with the TI manufacturer for the critical points and time frames. Each TI manufacturer will have a slightly different recommendation. Also, work with the TI supplier to help determine what issues might require taking an imager out of service. For example, a noticeable crack in the outer housing will probably demand placing the TI out of service, while a partially cut hand strap probably will not. Just as with any other tool or piece of equipment, firefighters will have to make intelligent decisions about what type of problem is serious enough to stop using the tool.
The old adage "Penny wise and pound foolish" is an idiom that originates from British currency. While there are now 100 pennies in a pound sterling, there used to be 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound (confusing, huh?). Either way, the notion is that one can become obsessed with saving small amounts of money while being foolish with larger amounts. This is the essence of why some people ignore preventive maintenance (PM). They don't want to spend money.
If your TI supplier offers a PM program, consider it like a seatbelt: it's there for a reason, so use it. If the manufacturer does not offer a PM plan, then ask the company to consider developing one. Thermal imagers are expensive tools, and fire departments can expect manufacturers to help them undertake reasonable procedures to protect and care for their investments. By submitting the TI for annual or biannual maintenance checks at the authorized service center, a fire department can help ensure that small problems (cracked shells or torn gaskets) do not turn into large, expensive problems (water-damaged sensor cores or shorted-out power management boards).
While paying for preventative maintenance can create a new financial demand on already-stretched budgets, it is a relatively small demand in comparison to the investment already made in the TI itself. It is also foreseeable and therefore more easily budgeted than an unanticipated electrical failure caused by poor maintenance.
Fire department leadership can keep TIs on frontline fire companies by properly planning the financial support. A fire chief would never buy a new ladder company without considering the financial implications of where it will be stationed (and if it fits the current structure), what hose and equipment needs to be installed, how SCBAs and radio equipment will be outfitted, and how the vehicle will be fueled, repaired and maintained. The cost of the apparatus does not stand alone; it must be properly supported with an appropriate budget. TIs are not much different.
Leaders must plan for three budgetary issues on thermal imagers, excluding PM, which was discussed above.
- Plan on purchasing replacement parts for the TI; the manufacturer will advise which items can be replaced in the field. Keep in mind that rechargeable batteries do not last forever; plan to replace them within 36 months or less.
Fire departments must stretch their budget dollars as far as possible so firefighters can safely and effectively provide excellent service to the public. Equipping firefighters with TIs is a huge leap in the right direction, but this advancement cannot go unsupported. Leaders must plan for regular care and inspections in the firehouse, attempting to identify potential problems before they lead to catastrophic failures of the equipment. Manufacturers need to offer meaningful preventive maintenance programs to customers, giving them access to a vital support service. And fire service leaders must plan not only the purchase of the TIs, but also the ancillary support and, eventually, the cost of replacing old units.
This three-tiered approach will ensure that the TIs spend their time where they belong: in the hands of the firefighters handling public emergencies.
Visit Firehouse.com to view and download a sample maintenance checklist for thermal imagers. Also, don't forget to e-mail your thermal imaging story, experience, frustration or question at firstname.lastname@example.org. During 2006, with your help, this column can address the information you specifically want to know and help you educate your brothers and sisters in the fire service. Be safe.
Jonathan Bastian is certified as a thermal imaging instructor by the Law Enforcement Thermographers Association (LETA), the international public safety organization specializing in thermal imager certification and training. He is also the author of the FD Training Network "FireNotes" book, Thermal Imaging for the Fire Service. Educated at Brown University and licensed as a high school teacher in Illinois, Bastian served 12 years on the North Park, IL, Fire Department, including the last three as a captain. As health and safety officer, he led the development and implementation of the department's rapid intervention team SOG. Bastian is a certified Fire Instructor I and Firefighter III, and he spent 12 years as an EMT-I/D. He has taught classes on thermal imaging, rapid intervention teams and search and rescue operations. He is currently a public safety official in Central Kentucky and is a thermal imaging training consultant for Bullard. If you have questions about thermal imaging, please send them to email@example.com.