By Robert Tutterow
In last month’s column, I shared the story of a sales representative for a thermal imaging camera (TIC) manufacturer complaining about National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1801, Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service (2013 ed.). He was lamenting that the standard had caused a huge price increase-a statement later refuted by fire service members of the NFPA 1801 technical committee. They were quick to say that the price increases he mentioned were very inflated and the changes in the thermal imager standard were fire service-driven.
It is appropriate that we take a look at some of the changes that were driven by the fire service-not the manufacturers. There are three broad categories of change: usability and interoperability, image quality, and durability.
Usability and Interoperability
The unit must have a green power button and have a way to attach to the firefighter. It must have a basic mode that allows for a firefighter to quickly use any manufacturer’s TIC without additional training, limiting the display to a digital temperature readout, temperature bar, and heat-indicating color with a reference color scale. Any additional features are to be found in a plus mode. Activating the plus mode requires a special action separate from the power switch. The reasoning behind the special action to engage the plus mode is to prevent firefighters from inadvertently accessing features for which they have not been trained.
There are a minimum field of vision and minimum requirements for thermal sensitivity, and the unit must have an effective temperature range. It must also pass a very important image recognition test. The requirements for image quality were based on a study conducted through the NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation under the guidance of a fire service-driven technical panel, which did not include any manufacturers. Five manufacturers were project sponsors.
The unit must pass intrinsic safety requirements. It must pass multiple drop tests as well as pass heat-resistance tests and flame tests. There is a 24-hour durability test that subjects the unit to temperature extremes, water tightness, and a tumbling. Once the 24-hour test is complete, the unit must still pass the image recognition test.
This is a great example of how NFPA standards evolve. There are several thermal imagers on the market. They are used by the military, law enforcement, building inspectors, and other nonfire agencies. Why should the fire service accept an inferior product that is not designed for its intended use? Do we get our ground ladders from the local hardware store? The fire service insisted that thermal imagers meet a standard of design and performance for the fire service environment. The requirements are not manufacturer-driven.
Buyers should be aware of the wording used by some manufacturers to sell their products. For example, the following are suspect statements:
• NFPA Approved. The NFPA does not approve any product.
• NFPA Certified. The NFPA does not certify products.
• Meets NFPA requirements.
• Designed to meet NFPA requirements.
Always look for the independent third party testing label that states the product is compliant with the applicable NFPA standard. Also, buyers should be aware of the current edition of the NFPA standard that applies to the product they are intending to buy and purchase a product that is compliant with the latest edition.
Informed buyers will have a familiarity with the applicable NFPA standard. NFPA standards can now be accessed at no charge online through RealRead. Standards cannot be printed or downloaded. Informed buyers should also be aware of the NFPA standards-making process. Keep in mind that NFPA technical committees are made up of people from various group classifications including manufacturers, users, installers/maintainers, labor, applied research/laboratory, enforcing authorities, insurance, consumers, and special experts. No more than one-third of a committee’s membership can come from one group.
For fire service standards, rarely is the installer/maintainer category represented. However, the fire service members can be users, labor, enforcing authority (fire chief), and special expert. Please consider applying for membership on an NFPA technical committee.
Participation in the NFPA’s standards development process has never been easier. NFPA membership is not required, although there are many benefits to being an NFPA member if you wish to be informed. Public input and public comment are now available online, and there is no charge to participate in the process. Anyone can participate. All it takes is access to a computer. Always have a solid substantiation for your input or comment. Stating that your department took a vote and thinks that a requirement should be changed is not a sound substantiation.
However, validated fire experience is a good substantiation. The best substantiations are those based on science. Information about NFPA standards and the standards development process can be found at http://www.nfpa.org.
Finally, fire departments have a moral and legal obligation to provide their firefighters with equipment that meets nationally recognized design and performance standards. Regardless of whether or not NFPA standards are voluntary, they are used as the standard in a court of law. If a department considers its firefighters to be low-end, then purchase them low-end equipment that does not meet NFPA standards.
Please understand that the NFPA and its technical committee members are sensitive to cost issues. But, also understand that standards are written with life safety in mind. Life safety and equipment costs often travel divergent paths. The path choice will default to life safety.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).