The 911 on thermal imaging cameras

CarolinaFireJournal - Daniel J. Cimini
Daniel J. Cimini
07/15/2014 -

Thermal imaging cameras help you to see things invisible to the naked eye. They make pictures from heat, not light. Day and night, they let you see clearly in any conditions, including through smoke and light fog.

“Everything gives off thermal energy, called a heat signature, and anything with a heat signature shows up clearly to a thermal camera.”

Everything gives off thermal energy, called a heat signature, and anything with a heat signature shows up clearly to a thermal camera. This lets you see things you would never see with your eyes; things like fire in walls, hot motors, and bad ballast, but especially people. No one can hide their heat signature, so you can find a victim in a smoke filled room.

They are also effective search and rescue tools in full sunlight and in total darkness allowing officers to scan large areas quickly and find people whom may be missing.

They see heat, not light. The more heat an object gives off, the greater thermal contrast it generates and the easier it is to see. Atmospheric conditions, like smoke, rain, or fog, reflect light, thermal cameras see through these obscured conditions clearly.

The term “thermography” is an exciting area and filled with tremendous technology concerning the undetectable and the unseen. Perhaps this seems confusing and the technology beyond normal intellectual abilities, but the effects and benefits of thermography are simple.

Humans have great eyesight; we can see near and far but we fail to see in the dark.

Thermography solves that problem easily. Thermal imaging cameras can see objects in the dark, but this technology is not limited to spotting something or someone in a dark abyss.

A Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) is a type of thermographic camera used in fire fighting. By rendering infrared radiation as visible light, such cameras allow firefighters to see areas of heat through smoke, darkness or heat-permeable barriers. Thermal imaging cameras are typically handheld, but may be helmet-mounted. They are constructed using heat and water resistant housings, and durable to withstand the hazards of fire ground operations.

A thermal imaging camera consists of five components: an optic system, detector, amplifier, signal processing, and display. Fire-service specific thermal imaging cameras incorporate these components in a heat-resistant, ruggedized and waterproof housing. These parts work together to render infrared radiation, such as that given off by warm objects or flames, into a visible light representation in real time. The camera display shows infrared output differentials, so two objects with the same temperature will appear to be the same “color.”

Many thermal imaging cameras use grayscale to represent normal temperature objects, but highlight dangerously hot surfaces in different colors.

Cameras are handheld or helmet-mounted. A handheld camera requires one hand to position and operate; leaving only one free hand for other tasks, but can be easily transferred between firefighters. The majority of thermal imaging cameras in use in the fire service are handheld models.

Since thermal imaging cameras can “see” through darkness or smoke, they allow firefighters to quickly find the seat of a structure fire, or see the heat signature of visually obscured victims. They can be used to search for victims outdoors on a cool night, spot smoldering fires inside a wall, or detect overheating electrical wiring. Thermal imaging cameras are credited with saving hundreds of lives per year through victim identification and removal from low visibility conditions.

In addition to the ability to see through dense smoke, thermal imaging cameras also can see materials involved in spontaneous, low level combustion.

Chief Daniel Cimini is Chief of Surfside Beach Fire Department, Surfside Beach, S.C.
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