Do you know the Two main types of Fire Service Thermal Imaging Cameras?
Don’t be fooled by low price! You will find that you get what you pay for…
There is a lot of confusion in the fir service today about thermal imaging cameras. Many departments are purchasing TIC’s such as the FLIR K2, the Scott Sight, the MSA ITIC or the SEEK. These devices are situational awareness cameras and NOT decision making TIC’s. They have a specific purpose and are often misused.
What does this mean exactly?
A situational awareness TIC is solely designed to prevent disorientation. It is used for the firefighter to assist in locating their way out or their way to the fire. It should NOT be used for size up, search, and stream placement. The reason why is threefold:
* Lower Resolution: Most of these devices are 160×120 resolution which is approximately 19,000 pixels whereas the NFPA 1801 minimum is 320×240 which is almost 80,000 pixels. This lower resolution limits the firefighters ability to discern small details from further than 7 feet away whereas the 320×240 resolution allows a firefighter to detect a small child’s hand at as much as 15 feet away. There are many variables that affect a firefighters ability to “see” with a TIC but the number one limitation is the firefighter themselves due to a lack of education. A low resolution an slow processor speed thermal imaging camera will disappoint the end user and do more to hurt thermal imaging use on the fire ground than help promote it.
* Slower Processor Speed or Refresh Rate: Most situational awareness TIC’s fall between 9 and 16 Hz (with the exception of the MSA ITIC which is 30 Hz). Why is this important? The human eye sees approximately 27 Hz. A hertz is one frame per second and anything less than 30 Hz will trail or lag. This will cause the user to miss valuable information if they scan too fast or when they point the device at a heat source greater than 300 degrees it can take 2-4 seconds to switch to low sense mode. This slower processor speed is far from ideal when placed in an IDLH environment where firefighters only have seconds to interpret the information and make a decision.
*Smaller screen size: Most Situational awareness TIC’s have a very small screen (with the exception of the K2) which can be hard to see small details such as a victims hand or a firefighters helmet. However the K2’s screen is larger and easier to see but do not be fooled by the crisp image that you see in normal conditions. This device is equipped with a digital camera that overlays over the infrared image. Once you enter a smoke filled environment the once detailed image will become blurry as shown in the comparison of the FLIR K2 vs the FLIR K65 below:
The other situational awareness TIC’s that are on the market currently are:
* MSA ITIC
* Scott Sight
* Seek Thermal Fire Pro
Each of these has their pro’s and con’s but a fire department would do well to do their homework before purchasing a situational awareness TIC. They should be aware of the following:
* Situational Awareness TIC’s CAN be placed on every firefighter for preventing firefighter disorientation
* Situational Awareness TIC’s CANNOT be used to replace Decision Making TIC’s (high resolution/fast processor speed)
* Situational Awareness TIC’s CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT be used for size-up, Go/No Go Decision Making, Stream Placement, and Search. Why? Because the majority them have a low resolution that will cause the end user to miss valuable information such as severe heat, victim location, or downed firefighters
* Situational Awareness TIC’s CAN be a valuable asset in combination with a Decision Making TIC. How? A crew leader equipped with a Decision Making TIC should direct his/her firefighters while those firefighters if they become disoriented or need to perform a quick check to confirm they are in the proper location based on their crew leader’s instructions this valuable tool provides vision in an otherwise zero visibility environment
* Situational Awareness TIC’s often use confusing color palettes that are not Firefighter friendly. The NFPA recommended color palette is TI Basic which follows this color/temperature progression: Black, gray, white, yellow, orange, and red. A firefighter understands that black is cold and white is hot and should understand that any colorization with a situational awareness TIC is an apparent temperature (not an exact measurement) as most of these devices have a low distance to spot ratio which means they are only effective at measuring temperatures at a very close range (most are 10:1 with the exception of the MSA and the Seek which have a greater distance to spot ratio.
* Effective Temperature Range versus MRTD: Even if a Situational Awareness TIC claims a very long distance to spot ratio such as 800: 1 (which is the ability to detect an accurate temperature at 800 feet away) it does NOT mean that the firefighter will be able to tell what that object is. Minimum Resolvable Temperature Difference means that the end user can look at the image after the TIC has detected it, recognize, and identify what that object actually is! In other words, it is more important to be able to see what the object actually is especially when searching for a victim
In closing, I am an advocate for situational awareness TIC’s but the fire department MUST receive proper training and do their homework otherwise they will be very disappointed with the device. In many cases, we hear of departments blaming the TIC for poor performance when in reality the TIC was never designed for the application they were using it for in the first place. Don’t purchase without planning and don’t put this device in a firefighters hands without proper training and instruction with LIVE FIRE scenarios.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and keep learning,
Instructor Andy Starnes