Making the Right Decision

How to Purchase a Thermal Imaging Camera

Many fire departments decide to purchase new or replace older equipment each year. One of these recurring purchases is the fire service thermal imaging camera. In the world of ever increasing and changing technology it can often be overwhelming deciding what thermal imaging camera brand an organization may need. And in some cases, misleading information can easily lead an individual or purchasing committee in the wrong direction.

With continuing demands placed upon the leadership of the fire department, how does one make an informed and trusted decision about these valuable resources? How does an organization know if what they are about to purchase isn’t about to be outdated technology?

What Type of Thermal Imaging Camera is Best?

Before an organization decides on the brand of thermal imaging camera (TIC) to purchase they must first decide on the TIC type that best fits their needs. In the fire service there are currently two general types of thermal imaging cameras available for purchase:

  • Decision making (handheld) thermal imaging cameras
  • Situational awareness (hands-free) thermal imaging cameras

We'll discuss how to purchase a situational awareness thermal imaging camera in a future article. For this article, we'll discuss hand-held cameras.

Decision Making Thermal Imaging Cameras

Decision making thermal imaging cameras are always a good choice for enhancing fire ground strategies and tactics. Once an organization has decided to purchase a high quality decision making TIC, they must determine:

  • TIC Budget
  • Number of TIC’s desired for purchase
  • Main objective or use: Haz-Mat, USAR, firefighting, or all the above
  • Amount of training required. (TICs are available in one button operation without extra features whereas others offer a variety of valuable application based modes but require a more thorough understanding which equates to more training).

>>Scott Safety's tactical decision making cameras.

>>Scott Safety's search and rescue decision making cameras.

Purchasing a decision making TIC often requires consulting a subject matter expert or forming a committee to assist in making the best choice for the department. In general, decision making devices should meet the following minimum criteria:

  • NFPA 1801 Certified
  • Resolution
  • Durability
  • Frame Rate

NFPA 1801 Certification

Why must one consider NFPA 1801 Certification as a must have on their decision making TIC list? According to Michael Whitty in his publication, Maximizing Thermal Imaging Use in Emergency Services,

“Fire departments that buy NFPA 1801 approved TIC’s will not be forced to go back and use the same model as previously purchased (and be trapped by replacement pricing an outdated technology) because the standard will mean their responders will be able to use a TIC from any manufacturer that meets the standard without retraining. This is a way of future proofing your training and TIC purchase.”

NFPA 1801 certification allows one less training burden upon your department’s schedule.

Durability

Before a decision making TIC is ready for action, it is placed through a series of demanding tests including flame contact, water immersion, and a 6’ drop onto concrete. After these tests, the TIC must function properly.

Resolution

Resolution is one of the most important criteria for a decision making TIC. There are currently many ranges of resolution available in the fire service market but the most commonly found are:

  • 160 x 120: 20,000 pixels
  • 320 x 240: 80,000 pixels
  • 384 x 288: 110,582 pixels

Each pixel is equivalent to a temperature measurement. Therefore, a higher resolution TIC (with more pixels) will produce a more detailed image, allow for better decision making, and see temperature progressions that could be missed with a lower resolution TIC. This could be the difference between missing a victim and saving one. For example, a firefighter equipped with a 160 x 120 resolution TIC can effectively discern a small child’s hand at 7 feet away whereas a firefighter with a high resolution TIC (384 x 288) can effectively discern a small child’s hand up to 20 feet away.

Frame Rate

Frame rate, commonly called refresh rate, is probably the most misunderstand criteria when evaluating a decision making TIC. It is extremely important that any fire department purchasing a TIC understand that the minimum refresh rate they should purchase is 30 Hz.

Why is this important? Because many thermal imaging cameras are available at 9 Hz due to an international trade law that prevents anyone from buying infrared cameras at the sporting goods store. The human eye sees at 27 Hz and our home TVs display images at a minimum of 30 Hz. Why? Because 1 Hz is one cycle per second and anything less than what the human eye sees will produce a lag. This dramatically slows down the efficiency and effectiveness of the firefighter using the device.

A firefighter who scans a room left to right will find that with a lower frame rate the image will “trail." In other words, it cannot process the infrared radiation fast enough to keep up with the demands and speed of the firefighter. In regards to decision making TICs, most of the ones available today are 30 Hz or greater which are very fast thereby producing an almost continuous display of information.

Thermal Imaging Cameras Made Simple

In summary, an organization looking to purchase a thermal imaging camera must first decide whether they are purchasing a situational awareness TIC or a decision making TIC. A department must also determine the TICs overall use. If it is for any purpose outside of firefighting, special criteria must be considered. Once the TICs selection criteria has been determined, the final steps an organization should take are to review the wealth of manufacturer literature for the TIC they want to test and test the TIC in live fire evolutions.

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