Choosing a Thermal Imaging Camera

By Carl Nix

Happy New Year! I hope your holidays were joyously spent with family and friends.

As we begin a new year, I wanted to share with you the criteria needed to choose a thermal imaging camera (TIC) if you are lucky enough to have money dedicated in your 2017 budget to purchasing one.

TICs are high-technology tools that every fire department wants to own. Today’s TIC manufacturers offer multiple products with varying features and technology options. A TIC lets firefighters see through smoke or other particulates in complete darkness. This is the single most important benefit of a TIC. Beyond this benefit, TICs designed for firefighting have evolved greatly. Now these devices provide scene interpretation (helping firefighters understand heat layers and potential emerging threats), pinpoint the location of hot spots, transmit and record information for training purposes or for scene interpretation, and give directional guidance to a team that is moving through a structure. TICs for the fire service have become sophisticated and complex devices, making it difficult to choose the best one for your department.

How will your TIC be used and by whom? Are size and weight critical? Will the unit withstand the harsh environment of firefighting? These are some of the questions that need to be answered before choosing a TIC. Let’s look at the criteria needed to effectively evaluate a TIC purchase.

Image quality. This may be the single most important feature firefighters look for in a TIC. The clearer the picture, the better. We are spoiled living in an age where our TVs, phones, and tablets have the brightest and clearest displays possible. Firefighters expect the same quality on their TIC screen. When evaluating TIC image quality, be sure you examine the TIC’s image in multiple situations, including indoors, outdoors, and high-heat environments. Look for the TIC that provides critical details in a fire including seeing low-heat objects in the same scene as high-heat objects. Don’t just choose the TIC with the best image quality, but select one based on the contrast of image clarity when looking at both high and low heat.

Durability. Your TIC is going to take a beating, so choose one that is durable. Many manufacturers will give you durability specifications for their TIC that typically include drop, shock, heat, and water test results. These tests are designed to replicate what a firefighter puts a TIC through when in the heat of the fire. As you evaluate different models, consider testing these claims as part of your evaluation.

1 Investing in a TIC is a big purchase, so it’s important that you do your homework upfront. (Photo courtesy of Bullard
1 Investing in a TIC is a big purchase, so it’s important that you do your homework upfront. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Features. Features installed on TICs vary widely, depending on the manufacturer. Features such as high heat colorization and temperature measurement are available on every TIC, but they differ in implementation. Some models offer either numeric or bar graph temperature indicators, while others offer both. High heat colorization may be as simple as a certain color scheme activating when temperatures reach a certain threshold, or it may fluctuate as the TIC’s mode changes with different exposure to heat. Some models offer selectable modes that let the user change the type of color scheme. Many TICs support image capture and DVR capabilities for recording images and some enable transmission of imagery to an outside command station or mobile receiving unit. Some manufacturers offer proprietary or custom features that support additional analysis of hot spots or cold spots, directional understanding within a structure, and distance measurement. Be sure to carefully evaluate each of the features available on the TICs you are considering so you can make comparisons based on your department’s needs.

Form factor and weight. Just like any tool a firefighter uses, it’s important to consider the weight and size of the TIC. A TIC’s form factor varies between manufacturers; some models are larger but incorporate bigger displays or integrated handles. Others offer smaller units that are lighter and easily fit into the palm of your hand. Some TICs may have side straps, a handle, or no straps at all. Your choice of a form factor needs to be part of a larger decision involving image clarity, durability, and installed features that best fit your department’s needs.

Valued added. Know the length of your warranty and service repair times on the TIC you are considering. Often, these added benefits can help you make your final decision when choosing a TIC. Examine and compare warranties to see which manufacturers offer the best coverage and value. Find out about service repair times, costs, and how you will be supported when your TIC needs servicing. Check with other fire departments to see what their experiences have been with the TIC models you are considering.

This is not an exhaustive list but covers most of the specifics of what you should examine when embarking on your next TIC purchase. Investing in a TIC is a big purchase, so it’s important that you do your homework upfront. Prices for TICs have dropped during the past few years, making them more affordable. Fire departments that are making the important decision to invest in the purchase of a TIC need to choose wisely. TICs are tremendous tools that help save the lives of civilians and firefighters. I hope this is the year your department has the funds to purchase a TIC.

Carl Nix is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a retired battalion chief of the Grapevine (TX) Fire Department. He serves as an adjunct instructor for North Central Texas College and a thermal imaging instructor for Bullard. Nix has a bachelor of science degree in fire administration and is a guest instructor for Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s (TEEX) annual fire training in Texas.

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