Thermal Imaging: NFPA 1801-Compliant Thermal Imagers

T echnology has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, from shopping to listening to music to driving. Google now has a completely driverless vehicle that has logged more than 500,000 miles on public roads at speeds as high as 75 mph without an...


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T echnology has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives, from shopping to listening to music to driving. Google now has a completely driverless vehicle that has logged more than 500,000 miles on public roads at speeds as high as 75 mph without an accident. In 2008, the best driverless car could drive approximately two city blocks on its own. This type of technology evolution is tough to keep up with as a consumer, but even harder when it comes to standardization.

The rollout of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1801, Standard for Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service, has been a fairly long and arduous process. I wrote about this standard on two other occasions as it made its way through the approval process. Previous releases of the voluntary compliance document posed technical issues that prevented valid testing. As a result, 1801 has existed for nearly three years with no laboratory being able to test and certify products for compliance. In an attempt to rectify this situation, the standard was revised in 2011 with the help of technical staff from manufacturers and was re-released by the NFPA in early 2012.

In mid-December 2012, the first three thermal imager manufacturers received compliance certifications from the independent testing laboratory tasked with the 1801-certification process. Now that compliant thermal imagers are available in the fire service, the question I have been receiving the most is, “Do I need my next thermal imager to be NFPA-complaint?” The answer may not be as easy as one may expect.

Let’s address a set of common questions and assumptions that fire departments are asking and attempt to separate myth from fact:

1. NFPA requires the use of thermal imagers

Myth. While 1801 directs the design and functionality of compliant imagers, it does not mandate their use nor does any other NFPA standard.

2. NFPA compliance will increase the price of thermal imagers

Fact. In reviewing publicly posted bid results from some of the earliest purchasing activity across the country post-certification, it appears reasonable to conclude this. The cost for manufacturers to bring a new thermal imager from design phase through development and testing is significant. Complying with 1801 requires product modification on the part of all manufacturers and testing and certifying consumes several thermal imagers, so it would be expected that compliant imagers would be more expensive on the whole. It should be noted that many factors influence the final price a fire department will pay for anything it buys, including, but not limited to variations in local market conditions, specific features required and the volume being purchased in any particular purchase.

Over the past few years, more and more fire departments have acquired multiple imagers on each piece of apparatus in order to extend the safety and benefits of thermal imaging to more firefighters. Much of this was due to the introduction of the personal imager, characterized by its smaller footprint and significantly lower price. It is not currently believed that a personal imager could become 1801 compliant, so it remains to be seen whether the potential increased costs of imagers impede the ability of progressive departments to add additional imagers to their arsenal.

3. Manufacturers will only produce thermal imagers designed to meet the new standard

Myth. After a review of the websites and discussions with manufacturers that have received certification for their 1801-compliant models, it is clear that they will continue to offer 1801-compliant products as well as other models that do not meet the new standard. Current economic conditions suggest that many fire departments simply cannot afford the higher cost of compliant models. Further, some fire departments familiar with the 1801 standard and resultant performance of compliant imagers have opted to stick with non-compliant imagers as a cheaper and easier-to-use solution than that of compliant imagers.

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