Price Increases Likely With New Thermal Imager Standard

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) last month released its first standard on thermal imaging cameras, and prices are expected to increase for certified products.

The new NFPA 1801 standard took effect Dec. 5, 2009, but it will be a while before manufacturers will be able to sell their products as NFPA compliant because of testing and other requirements.

Standardizing Features

The thermal imaging standard was developed primarily to standardize features ranging from buttons to displays to technical capabilities. NFPA Staff Liaison Bruce Teele said the process of writing the standard began in 2007, when companies that make thermal imagers came to the NFPA asking for help to set minimum requirements.

“They did get together on their own early on, before coming to the NFPA,” Teele said.

The biggest focus of the standard is making sure that all thermal imagers have similar functions and modes of operation. “So if a firefighter happens to be trained with one type,” Teele said, “he could pick up another type, and it would function in the same way.”

The new standard requires all thermal imagers to have power buttons that are green and can be switched on by a gloved hand. Other minimum features include grayscale imagery with white-hot polarity, power source status, an internal electronics overheat indicator and an “on” indicator.

In “basic” mode, all thermal imagers must use the same colorization modes: transparent before imaging begins, yellow at the low end of the thermal range, orange at the middle end and red at the high end.

They are also required to have a viewing area that consists of three vertical sections that show specific additional information on alarm indicators, operation indicators and temperature sensing indicators. Thermal imagers equipped with spot temperature measurements must have a zone indicator to give firefighters an approximate idea of the location where the temperature is being reported.

Minimum Operation Time

Teele said the standards apply whether the thermal imager is large or small. “If it’s something you can tuck in your pocket, great,” he said. “But it definitely points out the performance criteria that the camera has to achieve.”

The NFPA standard also requires a minimum operation time of 120 minutes, but does not specify what kind of battery or power source must be used. Accessories, such as power sources, tracking devices or video recorders, must not interfere with the thermal imaging camera’s operation.

“If it’s mounted as part of the thermal imager,” Teele said, “the thermal imager would have to be able to perform all of its functions as it should with the accessory being operated.”

Another big piece of the new thermal imaging standard is third-party testing. All companies that want to sell their thermal imagers as complying with NFPA 1801 need to have their products certified by an approved testing organization. That includes making sure the thermal imager does not pose an explosion hazard in a fire situation.

Several manufacturers contacted were reluctant to comment on the new standard, saying they are still working out what it means to them. But officials at one, E.D. Bullard Company of Cynthiana, Ky., are concerned.

Bullard created a stir at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) last year with its new Eclipse thermal imager. Weighing in at one-and-a-half pounds and fitting in the palm of a large hand, it’s designed for firefighters to carry in their gear.

Bullard Thermal Imaging Product Manager John Hays said he understands that NFPA standards exist to protect firefighters, but he worries about the cost to fire departments. He said all thermal imagers made today have some features listed in NFPA 1801, but none of them have everything in the standard.

‘Who Knows?’

“They’ve put more than one requirement out to do things that the current products don’t do,” Hays said. “It will be a tight one for departments, because most likely they will have to spend more money to buy compliant products.”

Hays also wonders about the third-party certification requirement. “Unfortunately right now there are no testing labs, no one certified to do it,” he said. “All NFPA products have to be certified by a third party, and that third party has to be certified too.”

Hays said products like the Eclipse – which may have fewer features than their competitors, but are more affordable – may have to be re-engineered. “I don’t know if there is any product out there that is manufactured by any manufacturer that is currently compliant,” Hays said. “Who will be in front in the industry, and who will be behind? Who knows?”

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