Sneak preview of F&R Q1: The true picture of thermal imaging cameras

Published:  13 February, 2014

Can you tell the difference between a basic thermal imaging camera and a ‘high performance’ firefighting thermal imaging camera? Ann-Marie Knegt speaks with David Little, CEO of ISG Infrasys.

Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) have long been accepted in the fire service, and today most firefighters see them as an essential tool for firefighting as well as many other operations. They have become the ‘eyes’ of the firefighter when operating in the dark and smoky conditions of the fire ground.

David Little is the CEO of industry-leading UK/US-based thermal imaging company ISG Infrasys, which has been dedicated to the development of TICs since their initial introduction to the fire service in the late 1980’s. He explains that the market for TICs is not as ‘price elastic’ as some may think, with users becoming increasingly more aware of minimum performance criteria – especially in the UK and the US. ‘TICs are now required to perform at higher levels than ever before, and this is even backed up in the US by the newly-revised NFPA 1801-2013 Standard on Firefighting Thermal Imaging Cameras. There has been an upsurge of cheaper models over the last couple of years prior to the release of this new standard, and these cameras appear to have many of the same characteristics of the ones that are designed to actually comply with standards (including NFPA 1801-2013) – but there are several essential differences when it comes to performance that ensures safe and effective use in fire ground operations.’

ISG manufactures a range of cameras, including their latest E and X–Series thermal imagers. These TICs are tested to comply with strict safety standards; are built with an extremely robust construction; and operate with exclusive Performance Enhancing Imaging software.

In addition, ISG manufactures NFPA-compliant cameras (such as the E380N) which have to perform at the level the NFPA requires for firefighting operations. ISG has used its experience in the development of infrared technology to create products that surpass this NFPA criteria, ensuring the cameras pass spatial resolution, direct flame exposure, temperature range tests, and other important requirements dictated in this standard. ‘And herein lies a key element,’ says David. ‘Brigades in the European market that tend to purchase lower cost cameras do so because they are simply not 100% aware of the differences between a lower-cost camera and one that actually meets the needs of a fire brigade. It is certainly not that Europe values safety any less, they aim to be at least as safe as any other brigade.’

There are safety implications for firefighters that use a TIC that is not specifically designed for firefighting such as those with their roots in industrial or preventative maintenance applications which contains an engine that by its inherent design lacks the many features and components that help to make the firefighter aware of key aspects of the firefighting environment.

A TIC that has its design origins in firefighting contains a specific ‘engine’ that comprises the heart of the camera. The engine consists of a focal plane array sensor and the driving electronics that connect to an LCD display screen. The main difference between a 'universal' engine and a firefighting-specific engine is that the latter features a very specific set of imaging enhancements, including a very large dynamic range. This means that the camera is able to image in very high temperatures and show gradations within objects in the displayed scene. For instance, a TIC with a large dynamic range is able to pick up a human being at 37°C against a fire that rages at 1,000°C. Industrial engines are simply not designed to do this, because they have been developed for different applications such as security, predictive maintenance, or law enforcement surveillance.

Secondly, David adds, a firefighting camera has been physically designed to work during harsh fire conditions. ‘The engine within has to be insulated with special heat and shock resistant material in order to create robustness and protection against elements. This is essential to protect the TIC in the extremely hostile environments firefighters work in. But in many lower-cost cameras you will find substandard insulation, and in some, no insulation around the engine at all! The size of the TIC is also of some consequence; there are small firefighting cameras and larger ones. And there are small industrial cameras and larger ones. It is all about how the TIC is constructed.’

One of the most expensive parts of a camera is the germanium window which protects the lens. On low-cost cameras the lens is exposed directly to the elements, making it more vulnerable to damage and dirt. Not integrating the protective germanium lens is a way of saving money for the manufacturer.

ISG prides itself on the fact that the company manufactures its own engine and components. ‘What makes our cameras great is that we specifically design the engine for firefighting applications, and we design all the electronic boards for this ourselves. The engines we use have been in development since 1992 (with many technological upgrades along the way) when we started the company. One of our core capabilities is very high dynamic range. Our TICs can process data from temperatures beyond 1,000°C, which is easily double the range of most competitive firefighting thermal cameras, and all industrial thermal cameras.

‘Imagine being in a structural fire, the room or corridor is full of smoke and you are trying to assess the situation. The temperature at your mask might be around 100°C. If this is the case, depending on the fire load, the temperature above you near the ceiling might easily be 1,000°C. A TIC has to be able to image at those very high temperatures so that the integrity of the ceiling can be assessed by the use of a thermal camera. Many firefighters have been injured or even killed in ceiling collapse incidents over the years.

If your camera lacks the necessary dynamic range to image through those high heat loads, the display would be saturated, and there would be no available information on the integrity of the ceiling. Consequentially, an officer would not be able to assess whether or not there is an impending collapse and to order his team out. This was a safety issue. This is just one aspect of the benefits of a high dynamic range camera designed specifically for firefighting applications. Firefighter safety is every fire brigade’s number one priority. It’s our priority too.’

David emphasises that everything always goes back to safety, and that the engineering team within ISG prioritises the safety element for firefighters at all times. The way a TIC performs its 'non-uniformity correction' is another highly important feature to evaluate – yet most fire brigades are unaware of what that even means. David compares the behaviour of a thermal imaging camera with that of the human eye. Every so often the eyes have to blink, and a TIC works similarly. During that blink the non-uniformity correction occurs – it basically corrects the offsets (defects) within the image. A TIC designed for firefighting operations blinks very quickly so as not to blind the firefighter for an extended period of time. ‘If I blink, I have lost some information about what is actually happening in the room.  A high-performance camera has a very rapid non-uniformity correction rate so it loses a lot less of this information. Firefighters typically will not notice this seamless process while searching for victims. ‘From the very first days of our company we have taken steps to ensure that every single model that we have ever manufactured has been future-proofed. Since our engine technology is our own design, we have always been able to ensure backward compatibility, so we can turn even our oldest cameras into the highest spec of today at much less cost than buying new TICs.’

In 2001 ISG released the K80, and in 2003 this launch was followed up by the K1000. ISG made available a path to upgrade every K80 to the latest specification K1000 at a much lower cost. If a brigade had bought five K80s, and later on budgeted to acquire another five more TICs, they could acquire five K1000s and upgrade the older K80s to K1000s. In this manner a brigade would own 10 cameras with the latest specification. That makes maintenance and training infinitely easier. ‘This is very important for training purposes, because when you have all your cameras to the same specification, it is easier to train firefighters. TICs all look and act the same. When the XR TIC was released, the K1000 could be upgraded to this spec. When the XR-HR and the E380 were released, they too were backward compatible, and we had the ability to upgrade resolution to 110,000 pixels, for the first time ever. A brigade who upgraded – instead of buying all-new – would have the same level of performance as if they had bought new cameras.'

Concluding, David points out that using the right equipment for the job – while keeping levels of training up to the highest standard – will always be essential in hazardous professions such as firefighting. ‘Understanding fire behaviour helps people carry out their profession better, and a high performance thermal imaging camera and the right training is essential to assessing what is happening to the fire. As the fire service raises the bar on standards and safety such as NFPA, we will see the demand for low-cost cameras decline over the next couple of years while the requirement for compliant equipment designed up to the right performance criteria will increase.'

David is extremely optimistic about the future of his company. ‘I am delighted to say that with the support of our UK sales partner Vimpex, we have won the majority of recent UK orders. Since the launch of our E and new X-Series cameras, ISG is retaking market share at a colossal rate. This is a clear indication that UK brigades are becoming more discerning and technically knowledgeable, now moving towards TICs that enhance the performance and safety of firefighters.

‘Feedback from our customers has been excellent. Our success is down to the technology in the camera and how easy it is to use. The word has also gotten out about our level of service, especially our 48-hours repair turnaround. Another dominating factor is our cameras' ability to provide firefighters with a level of situational awareness not seen in thermal imaging before. Our Performance Enhancing Imaging, like hot spot tracking, is performing as expected and immediately identifying the hottest part of a scene. Our tactical colour is giving the user a true visual picture of rapid heat changes. Overall, anyone truly trialling cameras on their ability to perform are selecting ISG.’

  • Operation Florian

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