Fire unit obtains imager

Camera helps find victim, detects point of blaze, hot spots

`Sensitive to temperature'

July 18, 2000|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

Cameras that allow firefighters to locate people in burning buildings are among the latest technological tools in fire rescue, and the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company is the latest in Carroll to own a thermal imager.

"There are 101 more reasons to have it than just looking for bodies," said Doug Alexander, Mount Airy's public information officer. "It will help us find the point of fire in a building, locate hot spots, determine fire spread, and even find an elderly person who's wandered off from a nursing home into a cornfield."

The red, 9-pound camera is capable of scanning up to 300 feet, possibly more, focusing on what is producing heat, "or wherever molecules are moving," Alexander said.

In several demonstrations recently, Alexander showed how the $19,000 camera can find not just a body, but a person's still-warm imprint on a wall or piece of furniture.

A chair seat that had been empty for almost 10 minutes still retained enough heat to show up as a white - or hot- spot on the camera's screen.

"It's very sensitive to temperature," Alexander said. "It detects heat and transmits it into an image."

In a completely dark attic simulating what firefighters see in a real fire - nothing - Alexander and two other volunteers demonstrated how quickly the camera can pick up a person.

Zane Clayton and Ivan Browning walked to opposite ends of the attic.

In the pitch black, a quick scan of the camera picked up both men, showing them up stark white.

Stepping behind a child-size safety training house, one of the volunteers stuck out his hand. Though the camera can't see through solid objects, if even a small body part is visible, it will pick it up.

In a real fire, Alexander said, the hotter fire would show up white and the cooler human would be a black image on the screen.

"The hottest thing shows light," he said.

Command center

As an additional aid to firefighters, the company purchased a command center for the camera. An antenna and circuitry board transmits radio signals from the camera back to a miniature television that can be set up outside the burning structure.

"The incident commander then can see what's going on inside, and maybe even see something the firefighters can't," Alexander said.

He noted one example where the incident commander saw an imminent roof collapse and called firefighters out of the building in time to prevent a tragedy.

Because the command unit transmits radio signals, the fire company had to get a Federal Communications Commission license, Alexander added.

Third company with imager

Mount Airy is the third fire company in Carroll to purchase one of the thermal imagers. Reese's Ladies Auxiliary presented a Scott Eagle Imager to the fire company at the annual banquet in April.

The Reese company also has a command unit with its camera.

Reese Fire Chief Marion Davidson Jr. said the company has used the camera on a couple of minor fires.

On one fire, the camera helped firefighters determine that a motor in an air conditioner had burned out.

"It picks up the heat and helps you find hot spots or where the fire's extended to so you know where to cut to get at it," Davidson said.

Though the camera can't see through walls, it can detect heat being radiated by a fire behind a wall, so firefighters know if the fire is out.

Last winter, Pleasant Valley became the first company in Carroll to purchase a camera, an Argus hand-held thermal imager that Lt. Forrest Shaw said has been used on several occasions.

"It's nice in the initial stage because we're able to look and see like we never could before - if you have a hot spot, you can actually see it and take care of it," the lieutenant said.

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