Thermal Imaging Cameras: Helping to Pick Up The Pieces

It was a warm June evening in Fairview, Texas, a small town that serves as a bedroom community for residents who work in the nearby Dallas Fort-Worth Metroplex area. Volunteer firefighter Glen Francisco was driving home from work when his pager went off. He called in, learned there was a structure fire at a residence and promptly made his way to the scene. As he drew closer to the residence, Francisco began seeing large plumes of dark smoke well above the treetops in the neighborhood. When he finally came upon the home, he saw flames engulfing the structure.

"From the street you could feel the heat of the flames," Francisco said. "When you see flames like that, you know you've got a serious working fire. I thought, 'This is not just a fire - this is a bad fire.'"

By the time he and fellow firefighters from Fairview and the neighboring communities had extinguished all the flames, fire had gutted the home almost completely. The homeowner and his family had managed to escape the blaze without injury, but their home and the majority of their possessions had been destroyed.

Once Francisco and the others finished putting out the fire, they began the process of overhauling the structure. In the past, overhauling a burned structure required the use of rakes to sift through the debris, but the Fairview Volunteer Fire Department now is outfitted with two thermal imaging cameras they use for overhaul.

The thermal imaging camera displays an image based on the heat of objects in view. Objects that are hotter "glow" white against the darker, cooler background. In the case of fire overhaul, the thermal imaging camera can help firefighters determine if the smoking portions of debris are covering up much hotter elements or if they are merely the sign of parts of the structure that are done burning and are cooling down.

Francisco took one of the department's thermal imaging cameras and began searching for areas of the home where debris was still smoldering. The thermal imaging camera helped to speed the overhaul process, but it was what happened next that offered Francisco and the others the chance to help the homeowners begin the healing process.

During the overhaul period, the homeowner, who had watched as his home (which also contained his office) was destroyed, commented that he had some medicine inside and asked if it could be retrieved - providing that it was still intact. Wanting to ensure that the homeowner did not miss a dose of his important medicine, the firefighters went back into the smoldering home to get the medicine.

When they had brought out the medicine, the homeowner realized that, while the home had not yet been cleared for him to go inside, firefighters could do so. He looked into the charred remains of his home and noticed a photograph on a nearby table. He asked if Francisco would retrieve the photograph for him, and he wanted to know if the firefighters could collect any other salvageable pictures, family heirlooms and other sentimental items that were irreplaceable. Francisco wanted to retrieve the photo, but first, he wanted to be sure that it was safe for him and the other firefighters to begin collecting items from the home.

Before the firefighters went into the home to retrieve more items, Francisco took the thermal imaging camera and began viewing areas and specific objects within the home. Francisco checked for any hidden hot spots and hot objects in the house. Because he was able to see that the walls, floors, ceiling and other items had cooled, the firefighters determined that it was now safe to go into the home to conduct this important task.

"The thermal imaging camera provided us the knowledge to be sure it was safe for us to go in," Francisco said. "We could make sure the main support beams of the building were not hot and that the structure wouldn't fall down on us while we were in there," he continued. "Without the thermal imaging camera, we would not have felt safe to go back into the house at all."

Francisco and the other firefighters made several trips back into the house and used the thermal imaging camera to determine if the objects were safe enough to handle before bringing them outside.

"We were picking things up with our bare hands, so we wanted to be sure everything was cool enough to pick up," Francisco said. "Because we were able to see if the objects were cool enough, we were able to save a lot more items than if we didn't have the thermal imaging camera. They had a lot of fine art hanging on the walls, and we could see if there was any heat behind the paintings before removing them from the walls. The last thing I wanted to do was take an object that was smoldering outside and possibly rekindle the fire out there."

The house is damaged beyond repair and will have to be rebuilt, but the family members were able to save many of their treasured items. They already have started putting their lives back together - thanks to the firefighters who were willing to help and the thermal imaging technology that made the process safer.

"After the fire was over, the owner expressed his gratitude for our efforts," Francisco said. "Knowing we could save even a small piece of that family's life before this devastation was incredibly satisfying to the entire team."

Mike Studer has been the Fire and Rescue Market Director since July 2003 and has been with Raytheon and Texas Instruments since 1982 in various manufacturing engineering and account management roles. Mike has five years of thermal imaging market and production experience and is a TI Certified Six Sigma Black Belt and a Raytheon Certified Six Sigma Expert. Mike's current responsibilities are to drive the fire and rescue market strategy and product development roadmap and to maintain and grow the fire and rescue market house accounts. Mike has a BS in Industrial Engineering from Iowa State University.