The future of thermal imaging

Published:  10 April, 2017

In low light and smoke-filled conditions, thermal imaging can help firefighters safely assess a scene and assist in rescue operations. How do the latest advances improve the effectiveness and safety of this crucial technology? John Graves reports.

Emergency incidents can be chaotic and unpredictable. Thermal sensors and cameras enable firefighters to fully interpret a fire scene, enabling them to make better, safer, more tactical decisions. The latest advancements allow firefighters to assess a scene from safer distances, enhancing their situational awareness and helping to eliminate the need for high risk, fast attack entry to burning buildings.

The latest thermal imaging technology supports both hot and cold spot tracking. Firefighters can use the hot spot tracker to locate hot spots during overhaul operations, as well as to find the source of the blaze and the hottest spots on the outside of a building or a wall. The system can also identify if there is potential for collapse, indicating which areas to avoid.

Equally, using the cold spot tracker enables firefighters to instantly identify and navigate to cooler spots, avoiding high-risk areas. Furthermore, cold spot tracking can be used to determine a gas leak and pinpoint its location, as gas, in general, will be colder in temperature than the surrounding environment.

Thermal imaging can also assist in situations when firefighters are called to a site where there are signs of burning but no fire. For example, wiring that has overheated behind appliances or inside cavity walls can cause a concealed fire hazard. Thermal imaging technology enables fire services to locate the heat behind walls or in a veiled area and then deal with the situation correctly. 

Direct Temperature Measurement (DTM) is a feature of thermal imaging technology that is used to determine the surface temperature of items within the structure while in extreme environments. DTM can be used to direct attack teams towards the seat of the fire, but can also warn firefighters to exit the scene when extreme temperatures are present.

Tactical Colour, on the other hand, is a feature that works in conjunction with the temperatures measured in the thermal imager’s field of view. Each colour represents a specific temperature that allows the user to quickly monitor changes in the environment without having to point the imager to a specific point and read the DTM reading. 

As with all technologies, thermal imaging has come a long way since it was first introduced, and uptake was initially slow. Think about how it is used: when firefighters enter a scene, one team member has a hand-held thermal imaging camera which they use to navigate through and assess the surroundings. They then have to communicate what they see through the camera to their colleagues, who are also working in darkness, acting as their ‘eyes’. Early thermal imagers were heavy, expensive, and firefighters were inexperienced in their deployment.

Now, however, the latest developments in thermal imaging technology have resulted in lightweight cameras that are quick and easy to deploy and contain enhanced technology and features. This new technology is contributing to an evolution in firefighting and could completely transform the speed and accuracy with which firefighters can do their jobs.

And, as solutions become wearable, technological advancements will further protect the lives of firefighters by giving them back both their vision and the use of their hands. This enables firefighters to navigate safely and speed up the rescue process. It is likely that there will soon be a proliferation of wearable technology, which could lead to solutions that are faster, smaller, and more efficient.

Standards for thermal imaging cameras

In the United States, NFPA standards are considered aspirational or voluntary. NFPA compliance is not legally required, however, compliance with applicable standards, even if voluntary, can be an effective means of risk mitigation.

In 2013 the NFPA created a standard for new thermal imagers used by fire service personnel during emergency incident operations. Entitled NFPA 1801, this was the first standard written for the fire service applicable to thermal imaging cameras and provides rigorous environmental and durability testing concerning impact, flame and heat. The standard also addresses the design, product labelling, certification, and performance requirements of thermal imagers. These include image quality, temperature range, electromagnetic emission and immunity, vibration, and heat resistance.[1]

The NFPA 1801 standard is currently only pertinent in the United States, however, as with many other NPFA guidelines, countries across the world will follow suit and adopt the same principles. For example, brigades across Australia have recently required NFPA 1801 compliance when purchasing new thermal imagers.

As with most standards organisations, the NFPA has a revision cycle. In the case of the NFPA 1801, the revision cycle is five years, so we can expect modification of the standard take effect in 2018, and there will be a few key changes.  

These include the requirement for thermal imagers with a video or voice recording feature to use standardised on-screen symbols indicating a recording feature. The battery packs must also be intrinsically safe when not installed in the camera. Currently, the standard only requires the camera and battery system to be Class 1, Division 2 compliant when paired. Finally, the NFPA-compliant camera will be required to have a unique model number. In other words, you will not be able to have an X380 and X380N where the N signifies NFPA compliance. 

Looking to the future, it is likely that there will be many more interesting innovations in thermal imaging coming to market in the near future that will help to keep firefighters safer and become more efficient, ultimately saving more lives. Already advances in this technology have played a key role in improving firefighters’ situational awareness, and the latest developments will continue to build on this. The next generation of breakthrough technologies is already in development.

John Graves is thermal imaging global product manager at Scott Safety

Scott Sight

Scott Sight is the latest launch in thermal imaging from Scott Safety, introduced into the US fire industry last year. According to the company, this is the only hands-free thermal imaging solution currently available to fire services and enables firefighters to keep their hands free for critical tasks. Mounted inside the facepiece, the display is unobstructed by smoke or debris and can be viewed without interrupting fire ground operations.

Scott Sight from Scott Safety is lightweight at just 8 ½ ounces and is very powerful, producing a 160 x 120 resolution image at nine frames per second through an infinity lens, ensuring that firefighters see a crystal clear picture without causing eyestrain. Scott Sight is also configurable to the individual wearer’s needs, with adjustable view, user interface options, and hot spot and temperature settings.


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