ISG Thermal Systems: Providing Sight In Zero-Visibility Conditions

ISG executives predict that thermal imaging cameras will be available for all interior attack crews and fire department officers will automatically grab them before entering any scene. (ISG Photo)
David Yackman
David Yackman is a repair technician with ISG. Cameras that come in to the factory for are thoroughly tested before being sent back in the field.
Erin Cross
Erin Cross assembles the thermal imaging engine of an Elite K1000 camera at ISG, one of only six companies in the world making camera engines. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
ISG's Elite K1000 camera
ISG’s Elite K1000 camera represents the company’s top-of-the-line camera. It can image in temperatures up to 2,000 degrees without “washing out.” It is also priced well below most competitors’. (ISG Photo)
Vlad Girenko
As a repair technician for ISG, Vlad Girenko examines the electronic circuits of a thermal imaging camera. Unlike other camera makers, ISG can rebuild, update and refurbish cameras in-house.
Tru Vang
Assembler Tru Vang puts some finishing touches on the electronic components of a K90 thermal imaging camera. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Radu Coliba
Radu Coliba is in charge of ISG’s shipping and receiving department. ISG practices lean manufacturing and inventory, maintaining a stockroom with sufficient materials to meet demand without warehousing truckloads of inventory.
Joe Knight
ISG technician Joe Knight checks out an image screen during assembly of an Elite thermal imaging camera.
Brad Kays
Vice President of Operations Brad Kays has 20 years’ experience in infrared technology. He is in charge of day-to-day operations of ISG’s North American facility.
David Little
David Little is CEO of the ISG Group, parent company of ISG Thermal Systems USA. In his role, he has responsibilities for ISG operations in North America and the United Kingdom.
Pat Morris
Vice president of sales Pat Morris is a founder of the company’s North American branch, located in Lawrenceville, Ga. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Hop Nguyen
Hop Nguyen works on a printed circuit board with the help of a high-power magnifier. ISG makes the internal electronic components for its thermal imaging cameras. Since ISG makes its own thermal imaging camera internal electronic components, the company never has to worry about obsolete parts.
Terry Sosebee
Before any camera is shipped, quality assurance technician Terry Sosebee checks examines each product and verifies documentation with serial numbers. For security reasons, thermal imaging cameras are regulated by federal laws and ISG is expected to maintain a “cradle to grave” ownership record of all cameras it manufacturers.

One day the use of thermal imaging cameras will be as common as self-contained breathing apparatus.

That’s the belief of executives at ISG Thermal Systems USA, a company that makes the cameras in Lawrenceville, Ga., and was founded by two pioneers in the field.

“When was the last time you heard of a firefighter leaving his SCBA in the cab and running for the fire,” says David Little the chief executive officer of ISG Group, the parent company of ISG Thermal Systems USA. “As people become more conscious of the advantages of using a thermal imaging device in a normal structure firefighting environment, like they do SCBAs, it will be second nature. You’ll put your air pack on and you’ll be looking for a camera, automatically. It will happen. Hopefully, in my lifetime.”

Thermal imaging cameras have a range of uses. They can save lives by giving firefighters the ability to see people in dense smoke or spot them in raging rivers at night with a heat image impression. They can also be used in search and rescue operations by producing a heat image of a person obscured in wooded areas at night.

Even at accident scenes, thermal imaging cameras can help determine how many people were in the vehicle because of heat impressions left on the seat and help locate people who may have been ejected during a roll over.

TICs can be used during overhaul operations allowing firefighters to locate hotspots or extensions in structures. They’ll even indicate overheated light fixtures and electrical panels and appliances that may be on the verge of starting fires.

Considering thermal imaging cameras have been in use in fire fighting for only about 10 years – a nanosecond in the fire service – ISG has made significant strides toward its goal of making the technology available and affordable to firefighters in North America. Little says ISG holds the number two spot in top imaging device manufactures in the world and has its products in “thousands and thousands” of fire departments in this country and Canada.

The Sense of Sight

“Thermal imaging is the most significant development for firefighting since the SCBA,” says Little. “Thermal imaging gives firefighters the last sense that they don’t have, the sense of sight in a zero visibility environment.”

One department that believes in the ISG product is the Sacramento (Calif.) Fire Department. Battalion Chief Chris Costamagna says his department has 41 ISG thermal imaging cameras in service. Three years ago the city received a $450,000 federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant that was used to buy 34 cameras and accessories because Sacramento was identified as a potential terrorist target after Sept. 11.

“We went from not having one to having 34,” Costamagna says. “The learning curve was straight up.”

The 17-year veteran and chief of the second busiest battalion in the city says he was largely responsible for the grant, the purchase and the training, having worked on it when he was a captain. He is also an admirer of ISG.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of vendors over the years, and I can honestly say ISG’s customer service is second to none,” he says. “Because they only deal with thermal imaging cameras, they really know what they’re doing. If we had trouble, they’d fly a regional manager out the next day to take care of whatever the issue was.”

Camera Trials

Firefighters in Sacramento tried several different cameras during the bidding and specification phase of the purchasing process. They put the units through their paces at a burn building, and the ISG K1000 camera came out on top.

Since then, the department has written it into its standard operating guidelines that the fire officer shall take a camera out at every call.

“We’ve had three saves with the cameras since we’ve had them,” says Costamagna, who is convinced the victims would not have survived had it not been for the quick discoveries afforded by the cameras. He also mentioned that he was able to spot a man in the Sacramento River, at night, with the camera.

Cameras Save Lives

“I could hear him, but I couldn’t see him,” the chief says. “Then with the camera, the heat signature was unmistakable, and we were able to guide a boat over to him. So, I guess you could say we had four saves.”

Costamagna says firefighters are now so accustomed to having a camera that if one goes out of service for recalibration or repairs, the staff doesn’t want to run with out it. In those cases, he says he’s been forced to give up the one assigned to his battalion car.

“They just don’t want to go without them,” he says. “We’re now including them in our loose equipment budget, and every new apparatus we get has to have a thermal imaging camera in it… It’s better to have a camera, anybody’s camera, than none at all. ISG just happens to fit our needs.”

ISG, which is short for Infrared Specialists Group, started in 1992 in the United Kingdom as ISG Thermal Systems Ltd., having been founded by two pioneers in thermal imaging devices, Charles Humpoletz and Alistair Watson.

Humpoletz invented the first thermal imaging camera for the fire service in the early 1990s while he was connected with another UK company called  e2v, where he was employed as one of the head engineers. Watson was in charge of e2v’s thermal imaging sales and marketing department. They launched ISG with a bit of venture capital, and on July 1, 1998, they incorporated a branch in the United States, calling it ISG Thermal Systems USA, Inc. Humpoletz and Watson still own part of the company.

Pat Morris, the vice president of sales and service for the North American market, has been with the U.S. branch of ISG since day one. She says that ISG introduced its products to the U.S. market through a distributorship with International Safety Instruments (ISI), a maker of respiratory protection equipment for firefighters that is also based in Lawrenceville.

Lawrenceville became the home of the U.S. branch of ISG largely because it was home for most of the executives.

Little and Morris both worked for ISI in the distribution of ISG imagers. When ISG decided to go it alone and start a U.S. branch, they were tapped to head up the new organization. ISG’s national sales manager, Bobby Kyle, also formerly worked for ISI.

“Those three were basically the founders of ISG USA,” says Brad Kays, the company’s vice president of operations, having joined the U.S. branch four years ago. “It was David, Pat and Bobby who built this company on the sweat of their brow.”

They were doing everything from answering telephones to filling orders and boxing products for shipment, in addition to making all the decisions required of a start-up operation.

 “We started this mostly as a sales office, established to promote distribution throughout the United States,” recalls Morris. “Then, in 2000, we actually began manufacturing cameras.”

Little says sales of ISG’s Elite camera are the fastest growing in the world.

“It’s a very high performance, relatively low cost piece of equipment,” he says. “Everybody in the industry right now is having a hard time selling cameras because the Fire Act grant money has been delayed… Yet ISG’s sales are up 60 percent over last year. That’s a result of being able to drive costs down and put together a technologically superior product at a reasonable price.”

The Design Process

Kays, who has 20 years experience in the infrared imaging business, says ISG USA, which has 25 employees, makes all the cameras sold by the company in North America.

 “We are the only thermal imaging manufacturer who buys just the detector and then builds the rest of the back end electronics around it,” he says. “We control the entire design process.”

Morris says that process makes ISG unique because competitors typically buy the whole internal electronic core, which is also referred to as the engine, and put it in their own proprietary case.

“The fact we build our cameras provides a benefit to our customers in that our products are never discontinued,” Morris explains. “Should something happen, we can repair cameras back into 1995.”

She says competitors who use cores built by vendors are at the mercy of the vendors, who may discontinue older parts.

“Those departments might as well go out in the back room and trash them if they have problems,” Morris says. “With ours, you can send them back to us and we can fix ours.”

There are only a half dozen manufacturers in the world making micro-bolometer engines for thermal imaging cameras, according to Kays, and ISG is one of those players.

How TICs Work

Microbolometer engines receive thermal energy and convert it to signals, which can then be processed to an image that can be interpreted and displayed on a screen.

Kays says ISG buys vanadium oxide (VOx) infrared detectors, with 320-by-240 arrays,  the latest and best available for fire service use. ISG’s in-house engineering team then designs the printed circuits boards and electronic components to get the best images and heat detection possible.

Years Of Experience

“ISG has 15 to 18 years experience in the understanding and knowledge about what it takes to make a thermal imaging camera for the fire service,” Kays says.

That knowledge is instrumental in designing the plastic shells that hold the engines .

“The engine is suspended within the case, and the chassis is mechanically isolated from the outer shell to reduce mechanical shock from a drop or a whack,” Kays says. “We know these things hang from lanyards and firefighters are crawling around, bouncing the camera as they go. We try to maintain the integrity of the engine so it’s in one piece when it comes time to use it. If it does get dropped, there’s a good shot that it’s going to be OK.”

The technology of a thermal imaging camera is complicated. Yet, Kays is able to boil it down to basic elements, explaining that the heart of any thermal imager is the engine and sensor, which is packaged in a box, in this instance a camera case. Infrared energy runs through an optical lens, then runs through the sensor and is processed by the engine. That signal is then electronically converted to digital signals and is processed repeatedly to create the image seen on the camera screen.

He says ISG’s rate of refreshing, 60 times per second, is twice as much as competitors. At 30 cycles per second, Kays says the human eye can see the delay, and it shows up as a streaked or slightly blurred image, especially when the camera is moving as firefighters scan an area.

Continuous Improvement

“We are in continuous improvement on our image quality,” Kays says. “Our camera is the only one that can image up to 2,000 degrees… Competitor’s images start to wash out at 1,000 degrees.”

ISG also has made advances in the way it colors the images seen on the screen. Kays says ISG cameras image in gray scale and two colors, red and yellow, which give firefighters visual cues about the temperature of the fire.

“Our color scheme is designed to help firefighters determine the different temperature gradients,” says Kays. “If the thermal column starts to build, it will switch colors. Yellow is caution and red means you need to start doing something fast.”

ISG also designed its camera to have see-through color so image quality remains and vital visual information isn’t lost because of a color overlay blocking the scene.

“Our system provides a visual understanding of what is happening in the building,” Kays says, noting that a numerical temperature reading is also given on screen reading the actual temperature of the surrounding environment. “You don’t have to be a scientist to run this. We’ve made the analytical portion of it very easy.”

Kays, who has family members in the fire service, says he has been in controlled training fires, one of which was a house burned during an exercise. The seat of the fire was 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the ambient air temperature was in excess of 540 degrees Fahrenheit.

Useable Images

“I couldn’t stay in for more than five minutes, and even then it felt like my hands were burning,” Kays says, noting that the ISG test camera, was still working and producing a useable image. “Our competitors’ cameras were just washing out.”

After ISG cameras are built, getting them to the firefighters is Morris’ job. She has three regional sales managers and a number of dealers and distributors in the U.S. She personally handles the Canadian market, and the company recently started a “grassroots” program soliciting firefighters to be ISG sales agents.

Thermal imaging cameras are also controlled by the Department of Commerce and are subject to export licensing.

“The last thing you want is one of these cameras to end up in the hands of enemies and used against our troops,” Morris says.

The company, she says, maintains a cradle to grave record of all the cameras it sells, and is furthermore subject to unannounced audits by the Office of Export Enforcement.

That’s why ISG personnel regularly monitor on-line auction sites daily to make sure its cameras are not being traded without control, Morris says. “Every once in a while, you’ll see one show up,” she says, “and they’re usually not there more than 24 hours and they get pulled down if they intend to sell the camera outside the U.S.”

The most expensive camera ISG sells has a list price of $10,995, which is about $2,000 less than competitive products, depending on options selected by customers.

Driving Out Costs

“Our vision for this organization is to become very lean and to drive the costs out of thermal imaging,” says Little, ISG’s CEO. “As long as this equipment is expensive, there will be guys out there who will operate without the equipment, and therefore, won’t benefit from the safety features it has.”

To help drive down costs, Little says ISG USA subscribes to the Kaizen formula of constant improvement and the principles of lean manufacturing.

“The costs come out of products by developing efficiencies with the organization rather than by putting cheap parts in the camera,” Little says. “We’re not going to make cheap camera. We’ll lower the costs by eliminating waste in the manufacturing processes to drive costs out.”

That business model fits well with ISG’s primary philosophy of enhancing firefighter safety.

“Everything we do, both today and in the future, centers on enhancing that safety factor for firefighters,” he says. “For instance, you may not think that being able to see 2,000 degree objects is important, but being able to resolve ceiling integrity and being able to tell whether fire has damaged it to the point of collapse is huge to firefighter safety. That’s why our K1000 ELITE camera is designed to clearly image such high temperatures.”

He also says firefighters need good image quality to determine if fire has extended into walls or other areas remote from the origin.

“If you can’t resolve whether there is extension in the wall, and you decide everything is fine, and it’s really not, you’re going back a few hours later,” he says. “It happens all the time, but with a good camera you will be able to tell.”

Little believes there will come a day when firefighters will automatically grab a camera as they do a flashlight when exiting the cabs of apparatus.

“The problem is flashlights don’t see through smoke,” he points out. “But, you can see the smoke real well with a flashlight can’t you? That’s why you need a camera, to see through the smoke.”

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