`Lady power' gives firefighters an edge

Pikesville company buys thermal camera, thanks to Ladies Auxiliary

June 01, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Capt. Glenn C. Resnick of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company flips open a small suitcase with the thermal-imaging camera inside. The bitter scent of a burning building rises from it, testimony to the camera's frequent use.

"This is the difference between life and death right here," he says. "We feel it's revolutionary."

What he's holding hardly looks revolutionary -- it could almost be mistaken for a household flashlight -- but Resnick and his company say it's changing the way they fight fires. By looking through the small viewfinder, a firefighter in a dark and smoky room can find within seconds a frightened child, an unconscious adult or a fire hiding in a wall.

Pikesville acquired the thermal-imaging camera about a month ago, joining hundreds of other fire companies across the country that have embraced what one expert calls "the biggest innovation since the fire hose." The $18,000 purchase made Pikesville the first fire company -- volunteer or professional -- in the Baltimore area to have the camera, which was developed from military technology.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about a thermal-imaging camera acquired by the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company incorrectly identified Stu Carter as the son of Betty Carter. He is the son of Lucille Colson and is Betty Carter's nephew. The Sun regrets the error.

That a small, volunteer fire company should have such an expensive tool is almost as remarkable as the camera itself. Resnick attributes that to "lady power," the company's women's auxiliary.

"The Ladies Auxiliary are an outstanding group," Resnick says of the 35-member support unit. "They gave us $21,000."

The money came from bake sales, bull roasts, bingo games and other fund-raising events throughout the year, says Norma Levin, the Ladies Auxiliary president.

Although the group is hardly young -- the median age is over 50, and many of the active members are in their 70s and 80s -- they are tireless in their quest to raise money for the fire company and quick to share it.

Much of the auxiliary's willingness comes from a web of relationships with the fire company. Husbands and brothers, sons and nephews, even grandchildren of the auxiliary women are or have been firefighters.

Betty Carter's son, Stu, lives in Arizona but remains a member of the Pikesville volunteer company. "He comes to visit me and goes out on fire calls," says Carter, who is 81 and a 24-year member of the auxiliary. "I say he's the only person in the world who comes 2,300 miles to answer fire calls."

When Resnick approached the auxiliary for money, he explained what the camera could do and how it might save lives. The camera's cost and technology remain mysterious to many of the auxiliary members ("How much is this thing costing us again?" one member asked recently as she peered dubiously at it) there was no waffling once they understood it could save lives.

"I called a special board meeting," Resnick says. "I had a demonstration, and I showed the camera, its uses. Within half a hour, they said yes."

The cameras, which typically weigh about 6 pounds and cost $16,000 to $25,000, became commercially available two years ago. When the camera is pointed at an object, the viewfinder shows an image similar to a photographic negative. Hotter objects show up as lighter than the surrounding background on the small, television-like screen.

The camera's ability to discern temperature changes is so precise -- down to a 10th of a degree, even in an overheated space spewing smoke and flames -- that it can show the ghostly image of heat from a human hand that has rested for a few moments on metal or wood.

"The applications are innumerable. The technology is cutting-edge, and it's something that is needed," says Al Frazier, publisher of National Fire & Rescue magazine.

Since Pikesville bought the camera about a month ago, it has been used more than a dozen times, Resnick says.

"We've used it for hot spots," the fires that can lurk within walls and threaten firefighters, Resnick says.

The Pikesville company has also used it to search large areas such as department stores, for possible hidden fires or electrical problems. It can also be used in other situations, Resnick says: A child trapped in a sewer pipe will show up on the camera's viewfinder.

Because the need is clear, he says, the company is trying to raise money for two more cameras.

"The Pikesville community at large is going to benefit from this," he says. "It's going to save lives; it's going to reduce the time to search."

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