Balto. County seeks edge in fighting fires

22 thermal cameras eyed for department

April 14, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Fire Department is poised to become a regional leader in the use of advanced technology to fight fires and rescue victims.

County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is expected to include money in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year for as many as 22 thermal-imaging cameras. The devices allow firefighters to see through everything from blinding smoke to concrete walls.

The hand-held cameras, designed about a decade ago by the British Royal Navy, can detect temperatures ranging from 5 degrees to 1,600 degrees.

By looking through a small eyepiece on the camera, firefighters can see animals or humans trapped in a smoke-filled room. Sensors in the camera pick up the heat given off by their bodies.

"By having a thermal-imaging camera, it cuts your search time inside a fire in half," said Lt. Charles D. Rogers, director of safety and research and development for the county fire department.

Firefighters also can use the camera to find embers or small fires inside walls. That means they can focus their efforts rather than having to tear down walls or roofs to search for the source of a blaze.

"A lot of times we have to go back to a fire [after it is out] and do public-relations damage control to explain why we had to cut open a roof, why we tore the ceiling down and why we cut a hole in a wall," said Michael K. Day Sr., president of Baltimore County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Local 1311.

Alonza Williams, a county spokesman, would not say how much money Ruppersberger plans to include in the budget for thermal imagers. The executive is scheduled to unveil his spending plan Monday.

Day, who has lobbied extensively for the equipment, said he has received assurances the budget will include money for 22 cameras, which cost about $9,000 each. If the money is approved by the County Council, the cameras would be purchased this summer.

Day said one camera would be kept on every ladder truck in the county at stations manned by paid and volunteer firefighters. Two ladder trucks are sent to every building fire.

Officials say Baltimore County will likely become the first jurisdiction in the metropolitan area to have access to the advanced equipment at all building fires.

Firefighters in Baltimore City have one thermal imager. In Harford County, eight of 11 fire stations are equipped with the cameras. Four of 11 stations in Howard County have them, while in Anne Arundel County, firefighters have access to one, though another has been ordered.

"Two years ago, very few, if any, fire departments had one," said Tom Coffey, a product manager at Scott Technologies Inc., a Cleveland company that manufactures thermal imagers. "Now, most larger departments have them."

Coffey said smaller volunteer fire departments are redoubling their fund-raising efforts in order to buy thermal imagers.

The Pikesville Volunteer Fire Department was the first fire station in the region -- and remains the only one in Baltimore County -- to have its own thermal imager. The ladies' auxiliary bought the camera two years ago.

"It gives us the edge that we never had," said Lt. Michael Smith.

Other stations in the county have briefly had access to the cameras as the department tested various models.

In January, a firefighter from the Westview station used a thermal imager to find a house cat "in 20 seconds" after a fire broke out in a wall, according to fire department documents.

Another time, a firefighter called to a house fire was able to quickly locate a dog that was hiding behind a clothes dryer after the animal "lit the camera screen like a light bulb," documents show.

Day said those kinds of rescues bolster firefighters' morale and mental health.

"There is only thing worse than hearing a kid crying for help" in a fire, Day said. "That is not being able to see him."

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