“These are a real game changer for us,” says Wilmington Fire Department Lt. Bobby Maynard.
“We can go further, faster,” says Wilmington Fire Department Capt. Bill Spirka.
In a fire, the cameras can be used to find incapacitated victims. “Smoke and heat rise,” says Spirka. “That’s why we teach kids to stay low to the ground. But people stand up and try to run out of a room, and the smoke takes them over. And then they’re unconscious.”
The devices have a handle, atop which sits a camera and screen. The user points the camera and can see, in real time and with a crisp image, whatever is in front of the camera, which has a 21-foot range. Color grading in the image gives insight as to what is hotter or colder in the space, which can illuminate where a fire source is and, importantly, where people may be.
“In a fire, your body will be cooler than the surroundings,” says Spirka. “So in a rescue effort, we would be looking for something cooler on the screen.”
The image is detailed to the extent that when the camera is pointed at Maynard, his facial features can be seen clearly on the screen. At one point, to demonstrate the sensitivity of the technology, Spirka puts his hand on a door for a few seconds and then takes it away. With the camera pointed at the same space, an image of a handprint shows up on the screen. It almost evokes the paranormal; it’s an image of something that’s there but is unseeable to the human eye.
“It would be able to see footprints, too,” says Spirka.
Using the thermal cameras, firefighters can see through smoke. “If you imagine a smoke-filled room,” says Spirka. “usually, all you can see is smoke. But if we look on here, we can see all of the furniture in the room, and we can see windows. Rather than feel around and try to make our way through the room, we have a clear path. And if the window we see is going to be a faster escape than going back to the door, we have that information, too.”
They can also scan a room to rule it out. “That might save us the time of searching through a room unnecessarily,” says Spirka. “Which means we’d be able to find the person faster.”
The cameras can also be used in other rescue efforts, including roadside search and rescue. Maynard recalls a time when an older version of the camera was used to find a drunk driver who fled the scene and then fell asleep near his car. “It was really dark out there and we couldn’t see,” says Maynard, “but we were able to locate him using that camera.”
The cameras give fire personnel a lot of information about the scene that’s in front of them, including the temperatures of individual items in the room, which can give insight as to where a fire has started or what is about to ignite.
“All materials have different combustion temperatures,” says Spirka. “Leading up to an object igniting, it releases gases, and then it goes kaboom. Typically you can’t tell when that’s going to happen, but you can with this.”
They can also help point to where the root of a fire is. “If we’re looking up at three windows in a row,” says Maynard, “and we don’t know where the seed of the fire is, we can focus on the windows and see a temperature difference and know that the seed of the fire is closer to the higher heat.”
“But without this, to us, that would have just looked like three smoky windows,” says Spirka.
The cameras can also give insight in other situations, such as where a burnt-out motor in an appliance is, or where a fuse or outlet has blown. Spirka says the device would have been perfect for a recent lightning-strike call in which responders spent hours trying to figure out what had blown in the home’s electrical system as a result of the strike. “Those calls can sometimes take hours,” says Spirka, “and it would have taken minutes with this.”
The new cameras are replacing 20-year-old versions of a similar technology. Spirka says the functionality of the old versus the new is like night and day. Pointing to a crystal clear image of the station’s darkened boiler room on the device’s screen, he says, “On the old ones, this would be blurry.”
The grant paid for 95% of the cost of the new cameras, which amounted to $19,643. The town’s contribution of 5% amounted to $982. “So we got $20,000 worth of stuff for $900, basically,” says Spirka.
Spirka and Maynard both say they’re excited about the arrival of the new devices. “I’m honestly quite tickled by them,” says Spirka. “I can’t wait to use them. Though I hope we never have to.”