Thermal Imaging: The indispensable tool of firefighting

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IFSJ looks at thermal imaging cameras as Teledyne FLIR‘s K-Series Firefighting Cameras marks a decade of innovation

Firefighting is no ordinary profession; it requires individuals to exhibit exceptional bravery, dedication, and resilience, often in the face of overwhelming danger. Beyond this personal commitment, effective firefighting also necessitates the availability and utilisation of appropriate, sophisticated equipment. In this respect, few tools have been as transformative for the profession as the advent of thermal imaging technology.

Thermal imaging tools give firefighters the ability to ‘see’ in conditions where visibility is severely compromised or practically non-existent – such as in pitch darkness, smoke-filled environments, or areas with intense heat. This level of visibility allows them to conduct their operations more safely, without needing to physically feel their way through a burning building or having to predict a fire’s movements based on its visible behaviour alone.

The enhanced visibility offered by thermal imaging extends to a variety of crucial tasks that firefighters must undertake. One of the most important of these is tracking the progress of a fire. Understanding how a fire is spreading, where the hottest areas are, and what materials or structures might be fuelling its spread are all critical pieces of information that firefighters can leverage to strategize their approach and operations.

In addition, thermal imaging can help firefighters identify hidden hotspots or embers that might not be immediately visible to the naked eye. These could be behind walls, beneath floors, or in the ceilings. Detecting and extinguishing these hidden sources of heat can prevent a fire from reigniting after it has been seemingly extinguished.

Since their introduction, thermal imaging cameras have moved from being an experimental tool to an indispensable part of the firefighter’s toolkit. Their impact on the profession is irrefutable, and their usage is now considered standard in fire departments around the world. As we mark the tenth anniversary of Teledyne FLIR’s K-series thermal imaging cameras, it is clear that these tools have revolutionized the field of firefighting. IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey spoke to Peter Dekkers, Director Global Business Development, First Responders to discuss Thermal Imaging and Teledyne FLIR’s K-Series.

Can you briefly introduce us to the world of thermal imaging and its importance in today’s industrial and firefighting applications?

Thermal imaging is a technology which allows you to visualize the thermal signature of a person, object, structure, vehicle, or anything It does not depend on light such as the sun or a lamp, so you will see in pitch dark conditions. And most importantly, you will see through smoke and can read the temperature of the scene. In firefighting, a thermal imager is a portable viewer, which is used by the firefighter to navigate through smoke or in dark environments.

What are the primary applications of Thermal Imaging Cameras, especially in the realm of firefighting?

A Thermal Imaging Camera, also called TIC, is a very versatile piece of equipment. Before entering a burning building, you’ll assess the exterior and decide on your plan for entering it. The prime use is fire attack, where you use the TIC to navigate your way in a building to the fire source and start controlling it.

The critical application is for search and rescue operations in burning, smoke-filled buildings, where you will use the TIC to locate and save persons, animals and other valuable. After the fire, the TIC is used to monitor if fire has been extinguished properly or whether there are still existing hotspots.

Can you take us through the journey of Teledyne’s K-Series thermal imaging cameras?

Thermal imaging has been used in the fire service since the 1990s. However, due to the high investment, technical limitations and overall unawareness at that time, the technology was not widely used. Some 10 years ago we wanted to break that circle and decided to enter the market with a much more affordable, but high-performance TIC. This step would allow fire departments across the globe to greatly expand or otherwise start using thermal imaging in their daily practices, helping them to fight fires and rescue people in faster and much more effective ways.

How did the development of the K-series thermal imaging cameras address the unique needs of firefighting professionals?

A TIC is a complex piece of equipment, as it needs to perform in the harshest conditions. Already from the inception of the development process we teamed up with firefighters from different countries to learn about how they operate, how they move, how they communicate, how they are trained; learn about their challenges etc. This helped us defining the shape, the video modes, the buttons and more. The K-Series is truly designed with the firefighter in mind in terms of usability and video image interpretation.

How did the evolution of the K-Series contribute to the disruption of the market for thermal imagers for firefighting?

Thermal imaging is a prime technology and is therefore also costly. Since we as FLIR own the technology, we had the opportunity to introduce the K-Series at a much better price. This not only helped fire departments scaling their TIC programs, but also forced other players in the market to focus more on price and performance.

How do the features of K-series cameras differentiate from a general-purpose or industrial thermal imaging camera?

Industrial cameras usually operate in a very controlled environment for a very specific purpose. This is far different for fire TICs. The conditions are very extreme, from cold to extreme heat, water, dust, steam, dirt, shock, vibration, and so on. Due to these circumstances, one should be able to use the TIC intuitively, therefore the operating is very straightforward. The IR image has specific colourisation which will help the firefighter to better interpret the situation and so the person can make faster and better decisions.

How has the thermal imaging technology evolved over time?

Thermal imaging has become mainstream in most of the firefighting community. This is very positive, because more lives will be saved, and property damages can be reduced greatly. With the wider use, come higher expectations. Users want a better and easier to interpret image, simplicity and reliability. That, for example, is the reason why we’ve put a lot of effort into our FSX technology, which gives you a much crisper image, so you can make a more educated decision.

Can you comment on the impact of K-series thermal imaging cameras on firefighting and emergency response?

Since so many firefighters are trained and are using TICs in their daily operations, the eagerness to learn more about thermal behaviour, fire dynamics etc. is increasing. Therefore, we put a lot of effort in having the best and most detailed image possible. Thanks to the FLIR K-Series, TICs are nowadays not just seen as devices to see hot-spots, but are an integral part of any fire or rescue mission.

What can we expect from Teledyne FLIR in the coming years in terms of innovation and product development?

A thermal imaging camera today is as good as its operator. We are working on technologies and innovation to move some of the decision-making challenges from the firefighter to the device – to the TIC itself. With that, the firefighter can concentrate more on other aspects in the harsh environment they are working in.

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