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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).