Training Preventive Maintenance and Care

Aug. 1, 2004
Firefighters are a quirky bunch. Really, we are. Fire apparatus receive daily or weekly checks to ensure that all fluids are topped off and that everything functions as it should. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are checked daily or weekly, plus before and after each use. Yet, when is the last time you painted and sharpened an axe? Or, when was the last time you cleaned the soot off the visor or goggles on your helmet? Sometimes, our preventive maintenance (PM) programs are extensive, while other times we just use (and abuse) equipment until it stops functioning.
Photos courtesy of Bullard Photo 1. By writing an “expiration date” on the battery in clear, bold characters, the regular equipment check can verify that the battery is still “usable.” In addition, a new battery can be ordered in a timely manner prior to the battery losing most of its storage capacity.

Your department purchased a thermal imager that meets your needs from a supplier and manufacturer you trust. Yet even the most durable and trustworthy imager is a significant investment that requires some PM and care to ensure you get regular, reliable service from it.


Regardless of brand, all thermal imagers (TIs) require regular attention in four areas. Failure to pay attention to any one of these all but guarantees poor performance from the TI in the future.

1. Batteries are the weak link. All thermal imagers are battery operated; without battery power, the imager cannot activate its electronics, stabilize its detector or activate its display screen. That is the long way of saying, “It will not work.” Failure to maintain the batteries is a surefire way to ensure the imager will not function when you need it.

2. Water and electronics do not mix. Ever. Inside your thermal imager is an array of very sensitive electronics. While you may have left the factory with a water-tight TI, after you knock it against the banister, drop it on the floor and fall into a wall using your TI as a brace, you can bet you have knocked some gaskets or screws loose. If you allow the condition of your TI to deteriorate to the point that water gets inside the body, expect an expensive repair bill.

3. Gunk on the lens blocks the heat. It sounds logical, but lens care is a common oversight. Thermal imagers use germanium lenses, and a number of them have germanium windows that cover the lens.

4. Goop on the display screen blocks your view. While this may be the most obvious point to the user, it does not mean it can be overlooked. Evaluate and care for the video display as well as any protective covering.

Practical Applications

Paying attention to the essentials means enacting practices that prevent them. Consider the following:

Battery Care Rechargeable batteries eventually wear out. In consultation with the TI manufacturer, develop a replacement plan. Depending on your usage, you can probably expect 18 months to three years from your batteries. When you receive a new battery from the TI manufacturer, write an expiration date on it, based on the recommendation from the manufacturer. That way, no one has to remember how old a battery is, or when it is due for replacement. You can treat it like a medication, ordering a replacement the month before the expiration date (Photo 1). Exercise your batteries. Your TI manufacturer may have a specific recommendation for battery conditioning; otherwise, use a monthly schedule. Fully charge and drain the battery. Activating your transmitter, if you have one, will expedite the draining process. Do this, by policy, on a regular schedule such as on the first Monday or last Sunday of the month. Be sure that you always have at least one fully charged battery and drain other batteries only after the first one is fully recharged. Make sure your batteries are charging. This one seems easy, but train your firefighters to check the indicators on the charging system every time they use it to make sure the system has engaged and is recharging the battery. Most systems use colored lights or a sequence of lights to show the system is charging or has finished charging. Cleaning Tips Photos courtesy of Bullard Photo 2. Different imagers may have different maintenance requirements. Some may have gaskets or screws that require minor maintenance. Do not ignore the minor issues; otherwise, you risk having major issues later on. Clean your imager. Yes, really. Remember that your TI’s water-tight seals may be damaged, so use a damp cloth and mild cleaner rather than dunking the TI in a bucket of water. By removing debris from the imager, you help protect external buttons and connections from damage. Clean off major debris after each incident; weekly or monthly cleaning is appropriate for general maintenance. When cleaning, pay specific attention to removing debris and carbon build-up from the lens. Eventually, if enough carbon accumulates on the lens, infrared energy will not reach the detector inside the imager and your TI will be unable to generate an image. Ask your TI manufacturer for specific recommendations on cleaning materials, but a soft cloth with either isopropyl alcohol or a mild cleanser is a common suggestion. Germanium is more durable than glass, so the lens is not as easy to scratch during cleaning as the lens of a video camera. Keep the display clean as well, again with a soft cloth and mild cleaner. Some displays have protective covers that can be changed in the field. If this cover is badly scratched, order an appropriate replacement so that the display is clear and easy to view. If the display cover cannot be replaced in the field, you may have to return the imager to the manufacturer for a new cover. General Maintenance Issues Have a single contact for TI issues. With one person as the “clearing house” for TI needs and problems, trends are recognized and someone is accountable. One Texas fire department experienced regular battery failures at incidents, but not due to bad batteries. None of the chargers worked. Each shift knew one of the station’s three chargers was broken, but no one knew all three were broken. The batteries rotated from broken charger to broken charger. During daily or weekly checks, inspect gaskets, screws and bumpers. The manufacturer of your TI will be able to give you a checklist of key areas you can check and/or repair in the field (Photo 2). If your TI manufacturer offers a PM program, use it! Like car maintenance, a few hundred dollars spent now can save you a few thousand dollars spent in the future. Contact your TI manufacturer for details on its PM program. Final Report Your thermal imager is a valuable and expensive tool. Even the best-designed, most durable thermal imager requires some amount of maintenance and care. By following the suggestions above, as well as product-specific recommendations from the manufacturer, you can ensure a long, useful and productive life for your TI. Even more importantly, you can ensure that it will function when you, or the citizens you serve, need it most. Jonathan Bastian is the thermal imaging training manager at Bullard. He leads the training team, whose primary effort is to educate the fire service on the safe and proper use of thermal imagers. Bastian is certified as a thermal imaging instructor by the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA), the international public safety organization specializing in thermal imager certification and training. He is also a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training. Educated at Brown University and licensed as a high school teacher in Illinois, Bastian served 12 years on the North Park, IL, Fire Department, including the last three as a captain. As health and safety officer, he led the development and implementation of the department’s rapid intervention team SOG. Bastian is a certified Fire Instructor I and Firefighter III, and he spent 12 years as an EMT-I/D. He has taught classes on thermal imaging, rapid intervention teams, and search and rescue operations. Bastian is happy to answer any questions about thermal imaging; contact him at [email protected].

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