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Smoke no obstacle to firefighters with new devices

ABHUTCHISON, Sierra Sun

A new thermal imaging camera allows Truckee Fire Protection District firefighters to conduct searches into smoke-filled structures as if there were no smoke at all.

Searches of a home during a structure fire are usually done blind by a team of firefighters who crawl into a residence, keeping a shoulder against the wall while feeling their way through rooms and ultimately the entire house.

“This is not only very time-consuming, but also more dangerous to firefighters, as they can become disoriented during a search,” said Truckee Fire Capt. Greg Burch. “Many firefighters have lost their lives in larger buildings due to asphyxiation after their air supply is expended while trying to find their way out of these smoke-filled buildings.”

Unlike other forms of visual aid which enhance light to allow night vision, the thermal imager relies totally on heat to paint a picture. Each object or person in a room absorb heat differently and give off their own heat signatures.

“When different items in a room give off their heat signatures, you can clearly make out everything in the room,” Burch said. “This is due to objects in the room presenting a different shade of light in the thermal imager’s viewing screen.”

Learning to read or decipher the images in the view takes training for search teams, and firefighters are currently training with Burch.

The device, which has been used in law enforcement and the military for several years and has recently been adapted for the fire service, was purchased by the district for $20,000 last month. Truckee Fire is the first district in the area acquire this equipment.

“We’re always trying to get state of the art equipment,” Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger said. “The funding was available. It’s so instrumental in our ability to find a victim in a structure fire, I just couldn’t justify not having one.

“Smoke can get so thick in a house fire you can’t see what’s in front of you. You can’t believe how disorienting it is. With the thermal imager, in heavy, heavy smoke, we can see the walls, furniture, et cetera. We can search a house in a quarter of the time we would normally spend.”

The device has already been used in two recent structure fires in Glenshire and at Donner Lake, where firefighters were able to quickly search for heat sources and make sure fires were not still burning in the walls of the homes.

“It gives us a lot more confidence because it allows us to fight fires,” Burch said. “A lot of the times you’ll get to the top of the stairs and think the fire is right next to you. With the thermal imaging camera, you know exactly where the fire is.”

With the thermal imager in hand, a firefighter leads a search team into a structure and conducts what is called an ‘oriented search’ during a structure fire. While moving quickly through the structure, the team leader is constantly orienting himself to his surroundings, which includes the way back from which the team came in case they need to immediately evacuate the building.

Upon reaching bedrooms or other isolated rooms in a home or business, the firefighter with the thermal imager directs the search team through the room advising them by radio or his voice what obstacles exist and where to locate any victims.

The device also allows firefighters to see fire inside hidden voids.

“This is especially useful when searching for fire which is not readily visible inside a room, but smoke is present,” Burch said.

“Firefighters can see fire within walls, and go immediately to the site with tools and water to extinguish the blaze.”

The fire district plans to purchase more thermal imaging cameras in the future with a goal to have one device per each first-out, staffed engine.


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