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 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.

4. To apply for and receive a FIRE Act grant, the imager must be 1801 compliant

Fact and myth. While the guidance documents published by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regarding the FIRE Act grant process indicate that products purchased with grant monies must be NFPA compliant (if there is an applicable NFPA standard), those same documents contain a provision for an applicant to be approved for the grant even if the imager is not 1801 compliant. The applicant must cite the reason for the request for the non-compliant product as part of the application process. Reasons could include additional cost, fleet conformity and compatibility with existing imagers and imager accessories within the department. (See the FEMA guidance document for obtaining FIRE Act grants for more information at

5. NFPA-compliant thermal imagers will improve robustness for use in firefighting

Fact. Many thousands of thermal imagers are in use in fire departments around the world, helping firefighters see through smoke, find victims and navigate their way through and out of structures. In the vast majority of cases, these imagers function as designed in extreme environments. There are, of course, rare cases where a product suddenly stops functioning or does not function properly. An NFPA standard will not change this; however, certain components of 1801 will make thermal imagers function in a more standardized way, improve certain performance characteristics and add a level of robustness that was not previously found in all products. Even though there is scant evidence that any significant product-safety issue exists, the standard does enforce some sensible product changes related to robustness.

6. NFPA-compliant thermal imagers will be more complex to operate

Myth and fact. NFPA-compliant products will afford users consistent functions and on-display symbols and, while the overall operation may be more standardized from imager to imager, any simplification will exist only in the BASIC user mode. Overall operation of the imager will be more complex. The standard requires a separate operating mode for any product that adds additional functions beyond the minimum functions specified. All three products that have been certified thus far to 1801, as of the time of this writing, use this additional operating mode. Also, due to new requirements of the standard, changing batteries and attaching accessories can become more cumbersome. The standardized BASIC user interface may make training more readily available and, over time, the fire service may become accustomed to accessing this more advanced operating mode; however, to what extent remains to be seen.

Each fire department will have choices to make in future acquisitions of thermal imaging products. Once a standard exists, grant funds, collective bargaining agreements, local statutes and other influences must be considered. Complicating matters is the voluntary nature of NFPA standards. The fire service is typically quick to accept standards related to items such as personal protective equipment (PPE); however, compliance with other equipment or program standards is often spotty. Take NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, as an example. Many fire departments work to comply with the parts of this document that relate to PPE, but many of those same departments cannot or choose not to comply with the parts related to medical and physical requirements or behavioral health and wellness programs.

Some common issues may emerge:

• How will we use the imager and what features and options offered best meet the way we will use it?

• What is our budget and can we afford the additional expense of an 1801-compliant imager or should we consider cheaper alternatives that demonstrate the same or similar levels of robustness?

• Do the benefits of NPFA compliance and additional product complexity warrant the additional cost?

• Does compatibility with existing thermal imager products owned by a department pose any problems from an interoperability or training standpoint?

On the list of longer-term concerns is how will the NFPA, with its current standards-revision cycles, be able to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of technology evolution? The origins of the committee that ultimately created 1801 go all the way back to 2004, meaning it took eight years to produce a testable standard. In half that time, Google took a car from two blocks at two- to three-mph speeds all the way to 500,000 miles at 75 mph. What do the next eight years hold? n