In high-hazard situations, firefighters need tools to help them assess their surroundings as quickly as possible. Thanks to advancements in thermal imaging technology in recent years, the use of Thermal Imaging Cameras (TICs) has helped to improve firefighters’ situational awareness, by providing a means of identifying areas of heat through smoke, darkness, or heat-permeable barriers.
Here, John Graves, Global Product Manager, Thermal Imaging Cameras at Scott Safety, talks about the company’s latest advancement in thermal imaging, and how its innovative product ‘Scott Sight’ is leading the way in the thermal imaging market.
Thermal Imaging Cameras have come a long way since the first hand held thermal imagers were introduced to the fire & rescue services in the 1990s. Significant investment has helped manufacturers to deliver more affordable, easy-to-use technology while manufacturer-supported training has helped firefighters become more comfortable with its use. TICs are widely used by firefighters, not just for finding fires but for monitoring convection, establishing how swiftly a fire is moving, locating victims and much more.
Today TICs come in many shapes and sizes. Modern examples can be fixed, portable or even deployed via a robot. The cameras are constantly being developed so that they are durable and easy to use and incorporate the latest technology such as real-time telemetry, situational intelligence and communications in hazardous environments. Advancements in technology such as developments in battery technology, , are having a significant impact on the design of TICs. The ability to package lithium ion batteries has made it much easier to manage equipment for periods up to ten years and has reduced the need for maintenance charging as is necessary with nickel metal hydride batteries. TICs are also now more robust and able to withstand harsher environments thanks to innovations in the exterior materials used and the advanced circuitry incorporated in the cameras. These types of improvements have also lowered the overall weight of TIC’s, making them more portable and user friendly.
While small, lightweight, ‘tactical’ models are the most popular types of TICs, there is ongoing demand for cameras with enhanced features for use by specialist teams such as urban search and rescue and hazmat. These users typically need higher resolution technology, larger displays and integrated tracking systems with specialist accessories such as laser pointers, lights, visible light cameras, transmitters and video recording all which add size and dimension to the camera. TICs have become so integral to firefighters work that Increasingly fire and rescue teams will buy 2-3 different types of camera to meet specific applications.
Building the bigger picture
Used in combination with gas detection equipment, TICs are increasingly becoming a useful tool to help firefighters assess their surroundings and build the ‘bigger picture’ of an incident helping them build situational awareness and inform them how best to tackle a blaze. Information provided by the latest thermal imaging cameras allows firefighters to fully interpret a fire scene and make better, safer and more tactical decisions. For example the X380 thermal imaging camera from Scott Safety which is powered by ISG Technology, now utilises both hot and cold spot tracking to enable firefighters to identify the safest areas to navigate. Using this technology, firefighters can instantly see and create paths through cooler spots and avoid the highest risk areas such as potentially unstable floors or ceilings. Hot spot tracking allows firefighters to immediately identify the hottest part of the scene and determine the true seat of the fire within a fully colourised area to improve decision-making capabilities. This is ideal for overhaul, search and rescue, and risk assessment.
Meanwhile cold spot tracking enables first responders to quickly locate thread or valve gas leaks as gas in general will be colder in temperature than the environment surrounding it. The cold spot tracker can also be used in hazmat environments to monitor the temperature of chemicals during fire suppression.
This combination of technology, lightweight design, and robust features helps to enhance overall situational awareness.
Robotic technology reduces firefighter exposure
Robotic technology is now being tested in combination with TICs to see how it can be used to gain intelligence and reduce the exposure of human firefighters to fires.
British firefighters have recently been working with Scott Safety to integrate the latest thermal imaging and gas detection technology with the unit’s ROV1 robot which features a built-in thermal imaging camera and gas detection. The ROV1 robot is a small robot which can be used to gain a close-up view of a building creating images which can be logged into a database and accessed by firefighters planning to tackle the fire.
The portable ROV1 robot can be deployed to get closer to a burning building than is physically safe for firefighters and provide imagery and data that would otherwise be unattainable. Thermal imaging can help firefighters to pinpoint the centre of the fire and essentially ‘see’ through the smoke to plan their extinguish plan.
In the case of robotics like the ROV1, future wireless capabilities could enable firefighters to access buildings from even greater distances. At present the ROV1 is operated via an optical cable with a reach of up to 100m so it is limited in the distance it can be deployed. In the case of cylinder fires or high risk explosive environments, wireless technologies could help mitigate the risk to firefighters and the public’s lives even further.
Giving firefighters back their hands
The reduction in the size and weight of the components used to manufacture TICs is also opening up new opportunities in terms of wearable technology which has significant potential to advance firefighters situational awareness. A key development in this area which is transforming the speed and accuracy with which firefighters do their jobs is the Scott Sight mask from Scott Safety. Scott Sight is a new in-mask thermal intelligence system which integrates a lightweight, in-mask display with a miniature, head-mounted and hands-free thermal camera that keeps the thermal image within the firefighter’s field of view at all times.
In some cases, when firefighters enter a scene, one member of the team will use a hand-held thermal imaging camera to navigate the scene, assess their surroundings, and perform search and rescue. This firefighter will simultaneously communicate what they can see through the thermal imaging camera to their colleagues behind them who are working in darkness, acting as their ‘eyes’ and navigating them safely. By giving firefighters back their vision and their hands Scott Sight allows them to safely navigate a scene and speeds up the rescue process, improving safety for both the firefighters and civilians.
The system can also help to eradicate the need to stop searching or put the hose down to deploy a hand-held camera, while also improving firefighter hot-zone accountability. All of this means that firefighters can now focus on the challenge at hand without being hindered unnecessarily by the equipment they use.
Setting the stage for future innovation
Scott Sight is the result of Scott Safety’s Firefighter of the Future initiative. In 2014, Scott Safety created an internal, lean start-up team, named Firefighter of the Future which was tasked with developing innovative life safety solutions that contribute to a more rapid and accurate development of situational awareness. Scott Sight is the first product of this team’s effort.
Scott Safety has already received global recognition for the Scott Sight device and the product earned Scott Safety Frost & Sullivan’s 2016 Competitive Strategy Innovation and Leadership Award. Frost & Sullivan Analyst Sanjana Prabhakar said: “Scott Sight’s situational awareness capabilities go well beyond other competing products. The company has successfully set the stage for future innovation in a market that has been historically underserved.”
Similarly, Scott Safety’s commitment to innovation was recognised last year, as Popular Science bestowed Scott Sight as 2016’s ‘Best of What’s New’ award, in the security category. Kevin Gray, executive editor of Popular Science, said: “The ‘Best of What’s New’ awards honor the innovations that shape the future. From life-saving technology to incredible space engineering, to gadgets that are just breathtakingly cool, this is the best of what’s new.”
Developments in TICs have played a key role in improving firefighter’s situational awareness in recent years and latest developments such as Scott Sight are building on this. With Scott Safety’s Firefighter of the Future team already meeting with new customers to test the next generation of breakthrough technologies it is likely that there will be many more interesting innovations to come which will help to make firefighters safer and more efficient and ultimately save lives.
For more information, go to www.scottsafety.com