Clackamas Fire District 1 Captain Jason Ellison uses a thermal imager to guide firefighters entering a burn building.
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of FLIR
The display of a thermal imager in search-and-rescue (SAR) mode shows a "victim" down in a training scenario.
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of FLIR
Like many fire departments around the country, Oregon’s Clackamas Fire District 1 has depended on thermal imagers (TIs) for well over a dozen years as a critical tool in helping protect lives and save property.
“The technology’s really changed since the early days,” says Captain Jason Ellison while between calls at the historic 1923 John Adams Fire Hall in Oregon City, one of 17 stations serving nearly 180,000 citizens in suburban and rural Clackamas County near Portland. “TIs were very large, cumbersome units when we first started using them, and very expensive. In fact, we were only able to afford a couple of cameras for the entire district back then. But with the lower cost models that are available these days, now we have multiple cameras per rig and use them pretty much on a daily basis throughout the district.”
That’s significant when you consider that Clackamas Fire is the second-largest fire protection district in the state. With a workforce of more than 200 employees and 100 volunteers covering 200 square miles, its firefighters and paramedics respond to over 16,500 incidents annually.
“A very effective roadmap.”
According to Ellison, “Thermal imagers have allowed us to see in situations where it’s nearly impossible to with the naked eye. Obviously, inside a fire environment it’s incredibly smoky and dark, and we don’t know the layout of the building. TIs show us the way through so we can move swiftly, look for the seat of the fire, look for victims; basically they help provide a very effective roadmap.”
In a technical nutshell, thermal imagers create images from heat instead of light by detecting temperature differences in a scene and transforming those values into readily recognizable shapes displayed as live video on the camera’s LCD. On certain models, still frames can also be captured and stored to internal memory for later review and downloading for documentation and training.
“With the thermal imager, I can tell as I move down the hallway where bedrooms are, easily make out the location of beds, closets, windows and see where others are around me.” Ellison adds. “Windows, by the way, are a secondary egress for us so knowing where they are is crucial to our safety.”
Assisting the hose team
Ellison explains that firefighters manning the nozzle have their hands full and typically aren’t the ones carrying a TI.
“There’s thick, black smoke, ventilation hasn’t kicked in yet, and it’s very hard for them to even see their hands in front of their face,” Ellison says. “But a company officer close behind with a thermal imager can be right there to hold the TI in front of that firefighter so he can see the layout of the structure, press on and direct the nozzle pattern where it needs to go.”
That, Ellison says, really speeds up the effort. “In the old days, we’d have one hand feeling the way along a wall and another guy holding onto the leg of the firefighter in front of him or a tool as we searched through a building. Try finding your way in your house with your eyes closed. That’s what it was like. It really ate up precious time.”
Ellison goes on to say that buildings they’re fighting fires in today often have materials that burn a lot faster and a lot hotter. “With this (TI) technology, we’re able to get to the heart of the fire and knock it out much quicker and more safely. Even when the fire’s essentially out, I’m still using the camera to look (through remaining smoke) for hot spots. You can see red glow with the thermal color (indicators) on the display so you know where to make sure the fire’s completely extinguished.”
Searching for victims
Tracking down trapped, stranded and missing victims is another way TIs come to Clackamas Fire’s aid.
“In any fire situation, there’s always a possibility someone’s inside,” Ellison says, “so a thermal imager is very effective at helping us make sure everyone got out safely and the home gets the ‘all clear’. We also use them in our technical and water rescue efforts. For instance, we can search for people who may be stuck on a remote shore in the dark after falling in the river. Sometimes at night, we have to deal with a car accident where someone got ejected from the vehicle and we need to locate the victim. In rope rescue, we can look over steep embankments for heat signatures of survivors so we know where to correctly place our lines – all situations where even lights won’t let us see with just our eyes.”
Clackamas Fire has acquired a variety of brands of thermal imaging cameras over the years. Ellison says that in general they have become lighter, easier to use and more reasonably priced.
“The cameras we originally started out with seemed like the size of computers…very bulky to carry. The new ones are very light and much more compact. And that’s important when you’re already packing 50-plus pounds of gear. A smaller TI on a lanyard makes it a lot more practical to clip on your turnouts or SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) and be hands-free until you need the device.”
The bigger, brighter LCDs of today’s thermal imagers also make using thermal imagers more popular. “Having a nice four-inch screen, for example, makes it a lot easier to decipher what I’m looking at to guide my crew members to safety or to their objective. I used to have to squint to make out the grainy image of the earlier cameras and it was harder to tell what was going on.”
To sum it up, Ellison says the thermal imager is a tool that, when used correctly, allows firefighters to move swiftly and safely and get the job done right. It’s technology that would be very difficult to live without.