Thermal Imaging Cameras Address Emerging Trends

MSA offers the Evolution 5800 TIC with user-selectable color palettes combined with a digital zoom feature. All Evolution 5000 Series cameras feature the same form factor.
MSA offers the Evolution 5800 TIC with user-selectable color palettes combined with a digital zoom feature. All Evolution 5000 Series cameras feature the same form factor. (Photos courtesy of MSA North America.)
Scott Safety’s Eagle Attack tactical camera offers thermal video recorder (TVR) functionality to automatically record every scene.
Scott Safety’s Eagle Attack tactical camera offers thermal video recorder (TVR) functionality to automatically record every scene. (Photos courtesy of Scott Safety.)
This TIC, from Dräger Safety, offers a laser pointer to communicate hazardous areas to other firefighters
This TIC, from Dräger Safety, offers a laser pointer to communicate hazardous areas to other firefighters. (Photo courtesy of Draeger Safety, Inc.)
The Bullard Eclipse 160
The Bullard Eclipse 160 upgrades a standard Eclipse thermal imager to 160 x 120 resolution. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

The fire service has always embraced technology—sometimes begrudgingly, but it eventually comes around. One device that has enjoyed widespread adoption—especially since the price point has become more reasonable—is the thermal imaging camera (TIC). Not only is adoption widespread, but it happened quickly. “One of the most significant trends in this area is simply the rapid adoption of thermal imaging technology and its increased acceptance on the fireground,” says Jeff Emery, marketing manager, fire services, Scott Safety. “It has gone from a niche technology to an essential tool for structural firefighting and search and rescue operations. This has been an encouraging trend, and, when used as a standard tool, [a TIC] can improve response times and safety.”

Variety Is Key

Early TICs were mounted to helmets, with picture quality that has understandably been improved on many times over. Manufacturers have listened to firefighters and incorporated their comments into the designs of their products. “The fire service expects thermal imaging products that keep pushing design and usability boundaries,” says John Hays, product line manager, emergency responders, Bullard. “Smaller, more intuitive products help firefighters keep their focus on the situation at hand rather than the tool they’re using.”

According to Emery, Scott Safety gathers feedback from TIC trainers, firefighters, and its user advisory committee. “One key piece of feedback we often hear is that there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to thermal imaging operations.” For example, he cites the difference between the requirements of everyday tactical firefighting vs. RIT operation requirements. “Our camera offering now reflects this,” he says. “Our Eagle Attack provides an excellent image in a small footprint, with simple, intuitive, one-button controls, making it an excellent everyday camera. The Eagle Imager 320 Series offers many advanced features and screen options, offers a large LCD, and is designed for crawling operations such as search and rescue or RIT.”

Dräger performs customer visits, interviews, and product evaluations to receive feedback on TICs. “Dräger will observe how firefighters use the TICs and the challenges they face when using them,” says Greg Sesny, product management protection, Dräger Safety, Inc. “This feedback is then designed into our cameras and why we have uncovered the unique features such as the adaptive display sensor, crawling plates, freeze frame, and laser pointer.”

Shane Bray, product manager, thermal imaging, ballistics and electronic PPE systems, MSA North America, says, “Firefighters want the best possible product with the best possible imagery for their front line attacks. Secondary response vehicles, although important, don’t necessarily need the same degree of performance as a TIC.” He adds that MSA has addressed this market need by offering four different models in its Evolution 5000 Series family of TICs. “All four of our cameras feature the same form factor, the same basic functionality, as well as interchangeable components like batteries, video transmission and video capture systems, and a host of carrying options.” Bray claims that this variety facilitates training while allowing a fire department to maximize the number of cameras it can purchase according to its budget.

As important as variety is for different budgets and needs, the fire service has recognized that a certain amount of standardization is important for TICs.

The TIC Standard

According to sections 1.2.1 and 1.2.3 of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1801, Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service (2010 ed.), the standard establishes minimum requirements for thermal imagers manufactured for fire service use. It is not meant to be used as detailed manufacturing or purchase specifications.

“The most important trend for TICs in the fire service is the NFPA 1801 standard,” says Bray. “Cameras will not only have to pass testing designed to simulate the rigors that a TIC used in the fire service has to be able to withstand, but it will also set the minimum image performance requirements.”

Also important to Bray is that having a third-party certification would help eliminate some of the showmanship that has evolved through the years in TIC demonstrations, “everything from throwing a camera at the start of a presentation to changing a battery under water, to having a camera that can see temperatures beyond 2,000°F,” he says. “The NFPA minimum performance standard for TICs should allow firefighters to focus on the camera’s form factor and how it integrates with their fire scene operations during the evaluation period.”

Sesny adds that Dräger has designed its UCF 6000 with hopes to meet the standard and will be submitting it for certification when the tests are finalized. “NFPA 1801 is standardizing cameras to meet an accepted criteria regarding image quality and durability so that regardless of the brand of TIC, the firefighter will know how to turn the unit on and understand all screen information,” he says.

Applying Technology

Like cell phones and computers, TICs have become smaller, more powerful, and more cost-effective. “As technology continues to advance, both the price and size of components will continue to decrease, as seen in other commercial electronics applications,” says Emery. “As this trend continues, it will become more practical to increase the number of cameras that are available per truck and increase the overall use of thermal imaging as a standard tool on the fireground.”

Sensor technology is one area that has impacted the sizes and capabilities of TICs. For example, Bray cites that infrared sensor technologies used in TICs are getting smaller, allowing TIC manufacturers to offer different integration packages for firefighters. “The concept of a compact, personal TIC for firefighter self-rescue was introduced to the fire service.” Although these devices are considered beneficial by many, Bray warns that they will have limitations. “The smaller screens make it sometimes difficult for the firefighter to interpret the information that the infrared thermal scene is providing.”

Also along the lines of sensor technology, Dräger customers have shown interest in its adaptive display sensor. “This sensor adjusts the display brightness to the firefighter’s environment, allowing him to use the camera in direct sunlight and not have to use a sunshade or cup his hands over the screen,” he says. “The adaptive sensor also dims the display just enough to not blind the firefighter as he enters a smoke-filled building.”

Hays adds, “Technology is an enabler. What this means is that we can make products that are smaller, more capable, and more affordable than ever before. However, it’s still up to manufacturers to engineer these products and conceive new features and solutions that customers desire.”

What’s Out There?

Several TICs are available that address emerging technology trends, sometimes combining them, such as the case with Scott Safety’s Eagle Imager 320 with Pak Tracker. “This is a product that was introduced in 2010 and is now in full production,” says Emery. “The unique feature of this camera is that it combines the functionality of a search and rescue TIC with our Pak Tracker personnel location technology. This product combines two essential RIT or search and rescue tools into one package.”

Scott’s other new TIC is the Eagle Attack tactical camera. It offers a reduced footprint compared to Scott’s other thermal imaging product offerings but is lightweight and offers a unique form factor. It also offers a high-resolution image and thermal video recorder (TVR) functionality to automatically record every scene.

Dräger offers its UCF 6000 TIC that includes the aforementioned adaptive display sensor, as well as a laser pointer and freeze-frame feature. “The laser pointer comes in handy as an extended index finger to communicate hazardous areas to other firefighters,” says Sesny. “Pressing and holding down the trigger button on the camera will freeze the image on the display, allowing the firefighter to view an image in a hard-to-reach area such as around a corner or into a blind spot.” Releasing the trigger sends the camera back into normal operation.

Bullard has added to its Eclipse™ line with the Eclipse 160. “The Eclipse 160 upgrades a standard Eclipse thermal imager to 160 x 120 resolution,” says Hays. He states that this offers clearer, crisper, and more detailed images, “making the Eclipse perfectly suited as an analytical and navigational tool.”

The Eclipse 160, according to Hays, addresses the trend toward smaller, lighter devices. “Bullard has always tried to anticipate trends and help spur them along by leading with new products that meet emerging customer wants,” he says. “Our Eclipse thermal imager is on the forefront of a trend to smaller, lighter, personal-issue thermal imaging at affordable price points.”

He adds that, for many customers, advancements need to come without sacrifices to performance, something he feels the Eclipse 160 technology introduction specifically addresses.

Bray states that firefighters are interested in a tactical TIC that offers versatility in its available features beyond just being used for structural firefighting. “Other TIC applications that firefighters are interested in include search and rescue, size-up, overhaul, and investigations.” To this end, MSA offers its Evolution 5800 with user-selectable color palettes combined with a digital zoom feature.

Nothing Without Training

Emery attributes the widespread adoption of TICs into firefighting operations to technology but also, in part, to training. “Enabling this change has been an increase in thermal imaging training for firefighters, along with technology offerings that provide more features, are more cost-effective, and are available in an improved form factor,” he says.

But, training is even more important as the price points for these devices make it possible to add multiple units per apparatus. Emery asserts that for TICs to be used properly, training is key. “Thermal imaging technology training will need to continue to supplement—not replace—existing training programs, so that users are accurately interpreting the images they see and responding appropriately.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 17-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

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