On the Horizon: Thermal Images in Your SCBA Face Piece

By Chris Mc Loone

Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) have progressed from being large, helmet-mounted units to the handheld devices the fire service uses today. Along the way, the amount of data these devices can capture during a fire has increased, and manufacturers have added more capabilities as the actual TICs have become smaller. Besides always adding new features, the one constant for TICs has been size reduction. The logical progression would be for firefighters to not carry a TIC at all but still have access to the information it provides. HUDstar Systems, Inc., in West Palm Beach, Florida, is one company that has been working on such a product. In this case, the company is developing a TIC that allows a firefighter to see the unit’s image inside his face piece.

HUDstar Systems

Serving the fire service since 2001, HUDstar presently manufactures a complete suite of firefighter electronic modules, including pressure transducers, PASS devices, voice amplification systems, push-to-talk communication systems, telemetry systems, and black box dataloggers. Additionally, the company employs certified technicians who handle all warranty service in Florida for two brands of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

In 2007, HUDstar was awarded a patent for a digital/graphic heads-up display (HUD) mounted inside a firefighter’s face piece. This HUD can display information including SCBA bottle remaining pressure, air time remaining, PASS prealarm and alarm status, evacuation commands from an incident commander, and automated personnel accountability report requests. The first fire departments to use face pieces equipped with these HUDs took delivery in 2009.

Since 2009, HUDstar has continued to develop its HUD technology with a high-resolution display and improved optics. As TIC technology has advanced, the company began to look at integrating TIC functions into its HUD technology. Reduced camera size and weight for TICs have made a face-piece-mountable TIC feasible, but the problem has been how to integrate a screen in such a way that firefighters can see the image.

The TIC-HUD system
The TIC-HUD system consists of two components: a TIC module that is mounted on the side of a face piece and a HUD module that is inside the mask (shown). (Photos courtesy of HUDstar Systems, Inc.)

TIC in a Face Piece

According to Tom Kuutti, president of HUDstar Systems, the company solved the problem of how firefighters would see the TIC image by integrating a postage-stamp-size wireless transceiver into a face-piece-mounted TIC module and wirelessly coupling it with HUDstar’s high-resolution HUD module inside the mask. The company has United States and international patents pending for the design.

The product is called TIC-HUD. The system consists of two components: a TIC module that is mounted on the side of a face piece and a HUD module that is inside the mask. Among the system’s advantages are an always-clear TIC display, since it is inside the face piece, and freeing up firefighters’ hands to perform other tasks.

Developing the product has not been without challenges. “Since the TIC module is mounted on the side of the firefighter’s face mask, it is important for the design to be small and compact,” says Kuutti. “Designing the optics to achieve good image resolution and visibility, size and weight reduction, battery life, and keeping the cost down have been the primary challenges.”

According to Kuutti, the TIC module consumes the same amount of power as a firefighter’s radio, so a rechargeable battery provides the best tradeoff between weight reduction and battery life. He adds that HUDstar is also developing a recharging bank that holds several TIC modules.

Implementing TIC-HUD

Since implementing the TIC-HUD at the company level will require some modifications to existing SCBA face pieces, it’s natural to question how practical it will be to integrate the system into current equipment.

According to Kuutti, the TIC-HUD design is intended to be a retrofit to existing SCBA face pieces. “The product will likely be offered as a kit that can be installed by certified SCBA service technicians,” he says. “The HUD module would be personal to each firefighter, whereas the TIC module would be shared.

HUDstar has already built working prototypes for two different SCBA manufacturers’ face pieces. “A snap-on/snap-off mounting concept is being developed to allow a standard TIC module to attach to different face pieces with custom mounting pieces that will be designed for each brand of face piece,” adds Kuutti.

As the fire service has seen with thermal imaging technology, there is a variety of TIC choices from different manufacturers, the size of TICs is greatly reduced, and the price is significantly lower than when the technology was first introduced.

In terms of TIC-HUD’s price, HUDstar is working to make the price of integrating the system as low as possible. Kuutti states, “HUDstar’s snap-on/snap-off mounting concept will help keep the fire department’s costs down because the TIC module, which is the most expensive component, would be shared by several firefighters on different shifts.”

Kuutti adds that the snap-on/snap-off mounting concept allows the TIC module to be easily removed from the firefighter’s facemask at the end of his shift. “The firefighter would simply put his TIC module into the recharging bank at a central location at the fire station,” he says. “Each new firefighter arriving on shift would then select a charged TIC module from the charging bank and snap it into the mount on his face mask.”

The TIC-HUD system
Shown here is the TIC module that would be mounted on the side of an SCBA face piece. A snap-on/snap-off mounting concept allows the TIC module to be easily removed from the firefighter’s face mask at the end of his shift.

The Future

The idea that firefighters will be able to have TIC images available to them in their face pieces, freeing their hands to perform other tasks, is an exciting prospect. Getting the technology to the fire service at a price point that makes sense is the challenge. But, Kuutti has made it clear what the HUDstar Systems vision is regarding this technology.

He states that the vision is to provide every firefighter on the fireground a “window” through the smoke. “This will greatly improve the firefighter’s ability to perform his duties, find victims more quickly, and reduce firefighter casualties,” asserts Kuutti. He adds that if such technology were mandated, “the increased manufacturing volumes would bring the cost down sufficiently to enable this vision to become a reality.” Even without such a mandate, Kuutti says that one of HUDstar’s top priorities is completing the TIC-HUD development and getting the product in the hands of firefighters throughout the country. “HUDstar’s prototypes have been tested in simulated fire conditions but not yet in actual fire situations,” says Kuutti. “We plan to do this in the near future.” He adds that HUDstar is planning to begin marketing the new TIC-HUD design within a year.

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He is a member of apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and editor for more than 19 years.

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