The biggest difference between industrial firefighting and residential-type structure fires is the level of exposure confronting personnel because the primary incident’s dynamics can change quickly.
Handheld or drone-mounted thermal imaging devices are excellent tools not just for an initial attack, but for monitoring the safety of firefighters, says Jason Messerschmidt, director of sales for FLIR Systems, which is based in Wilsonville, Oregon.
However, more companies are installing conditioned monitoring equipment in industrial locations prone to potential danger. Measuring 2-inches-by-4-inches, FLIR’s AX8 is compact and easy to install. It provides continuous monitoring of electrical cabinets, process and manufacturing areas, data centers, energy generation and distribution, transportation and mass transit, storage facilities and refrigeration warehouses.
Fixed-mounted thermal imaging cameras attach to poles or walls to monitor areas with live video. They also monitor temperatures in a closed environment. Users can program devices to send alerts whenever heat rises as little as five degrees above the ambient temperature.
The equipment signals key staff members in control rooms so they can dispatch workers to investigate. It can also send text messages, activate a pager, or alert the 911 system directly.
“The devices are really smart smoke alarms that sense danger before it becomes a full-blown incident,” Messerschmidt explains. “They can detect a fire in the incipient stage when members can battle it without protective clothing or breathing apparatus.”
Thermal imagery uses colors to evaluate storage levels because material inside is cooler than a container’s exterior. That’s important information because half-full or empty tanks can pose a dangerous threat due to gas buildup above the material, he adds.
Thermal imagers allow first responders to monitor equipment beyond an initial fire attack to ensure a situation doesn’t escalate. They enable firefighters to peer through smoke and even structures to see what’s happening in real time.
“In a hot zone, smoke can be so thick that commanders can’t see firefighters working,” says Messerschmidt. “The technology sees through smoke to improve situational awareness.”
Firefighters can use thermal imagers to see if structures next to the primary incident are about to incur damage. Some liquid or chemical fires burn extremely hot. So, depending on how close secondary buildings are, their structural integrity could be at risk.
“It may not be on fire yet, but the heat generated by a primary incident puts other things at risk. A thermal imager examines a building’s exterior or nearby structures to see if it needs to be cooled down by a hose line,” says Messerschmidt.
With thermal imaging, commanders can make go or no-go decisions to deploy resources.
“Even if there aren’t visible flames, the devices show whether the environment is too hot for firefighters to enter,” Messerschmidt explains. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to detect when a chemical is burning because the material doesn’t emit visible flames, but it creates a tremendous amount of heat.”
A thermal imaging camera helps incident commanders develop strategies to attack fires with water or foam from the outside. It also ensures a situation doesn’t get so hot that it renders personal protective equipment (PPE) useless.
“All PPE is rated regarding its effectiveness at certain temperatures. Thermal imaging devices help determine if the fire is so hot that PPE could fail and cause injuries,” says Messerschmidt.
EYES IN THE SKY
If there is a disadvantage to handheld thermal imagers, it is the inability for firefighters to wirelessly transmit images, videos or data from inside a structure to an incident commander located further away. That’s when departments can call drones into service.
An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) can fly over a situation and relay what it sees. The market for drones has exploded in recent years, as the technology becomes more sophisticated.
Drones can carry multiple payloads, like a camera and high-resolution video and thermal imaging devices. They can fly up to 300 feet over an incident to give commanders a bird’s-eye view of large area.
“By using a drone, incident commanders can see where heat is concentrated. Then, they can move personnel based on how the fire is moving,” says Messerschmidt.
“The commander can see when a hot zone becomes too hot and puts people at further risk. The commander can move them to a safer location or to better engage the fire, like when a fire is moving from the east to the northeast,” he adds.
Drones enable a detailed view of a roof, which is often the hardest part of a structure to assess from the ground, he notes.
“Whether it is a residential fire or an industrial incident, firefighters are often on the roof cutting holes to vent heat. It is critical to see what’s happening to the roof while people work on it,” says Messerschmidt. “A drone lets commanders see if there is a tremendous amount of heat building beneath the staff. Drones provide situational awareness that commanders can’t get from the ground.”
Departments often base the decision to select one type of equipment over another on budget and on the equipment’s safety rating. For example, a chemical plant requires firefighting products rated for that environment.
Most manufacturers allow companies to test equipment onsite before purchasing it to determine which cameras work best in a particular environment and what resolution provides the best detail.
With thermal imaging devices, there are two levels of equipment to consider. First, a tactical thermal imager offers a much higher resolution for incident commanders to make very technical decisions, such as where to deploy assets.
FLIR also sells a less expensive device for individual firefighters. At a price of less than $1,000 per unit and weighing less than 1.5 pounds, firefighters can carry the devices to aid in self-rescue and to evaluate situations quickly.
Using a drone or thermal imager isn’t difficult but requires training to ensure devices work as expected. FLIR and its distribution partners produce basic training videos about the functional use of a camera or aircraft.
“Our videos explain the function of each button and how to properly care for devices,” Messerschmidt says. “They also demonstrate what users should expect to see in a particular environment.”
Advanced training can be more tactical. For example, Insight Fire Training (www.insighttrainingllc.com) offers education in live environments tailored to specific situations.
Handheld thermal imagers can cost $3,500 to $7,000 based on a device’s ability to record videos or take pictures, but they cannot transmit data away from the fire. Price also varies based on image resolution. Imagine viewing a picture from an old-fashioned tube television compared to today’s high-definition TVs.
“Price has come down considerably from 10 years ago when a handheld device would have cost $20,000,” says Messerschmidt. “Drone and thermal imaging technology were introduced about 20 years ago, but their popularity has soared in recent years as the price dropped and quality improved.”
He compared it to flat-screen televisions that first sold for more than $5,000. Today, we can replace those televisions at Walmart for $500—and the quality is significantly higher at a 10th the cost.
The weight also has come down. Early versions of thermal imaging technology required two firefighters to carry it, now they can slip modern devices into a pocket.
Currently, organizations can install a fixed-mounted system for less than $2,500, while a network of monitoring equipment can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
“It just depends on what you’re attempting to protect and how detailed temperature tolerance needs to be,” says Messerschmidt.
All FLIR equipment undergoes extensive testing to ensure they can use it in some of the harshest environments in the world, says Messerschmidt. Handheld imagers are IP67 rated, which means they are completely submersible. The devices also undergo rigorous drop testing and spend time in a “hamster wheel” to ensure they still work when jostled, turned, bounced and bumped.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Detecting a fire early enables companies to dispatch staff to the scene quickly before it can grow and cause a lot of damage. Organizations can install fixed monitoring equipment in places that aren’t manned or monitored all the time, such as a storage shed full of chemicals.
“In a perfect world, we could prevent every incident from happening. But that’s not the world we live in,” he explains. “Technology allows us to put resources where they need to be and to keep firefighters safe while addressing a live incident.”
For more information on various thermal imaging or drone options, visit www.flir.com.