Firefighters are starting to recognize the potential usefulness of thermal imagers or infrared cameras for saving property and lives. Choosing the most appropriate thermal imager for a particular use, however, can be difficult. No standardized performance guidelines exist for infrared camera devices specifically tailored to first responder needs. For example, the devices may be used to locate victims in a burning building or to pinpoint fire sources in a smoky environment.
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hope to change that situation. Last month they submitted recommendations to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that outline evaluation methods for thermal imagers as used in six critical emergency situations. These recommendations include tests to assess durability as well as image quality.
While firefighter applications represent less than 10 percent of the $1.2 billion worldwide annual market for infrared cameras, the NIST researchers say that the performance evaluation methods will be very important to the first responder community. "Right now," says Francine Amon, leader of the NIST team, "fire departments have to base their thermal imager purchasing decisions on manufacturer's literature, personal experience and word-of-mouth recommendations. Standardized performance metrics and test methods should improve the selection process for these potentially life-saving devices that cost an average of $10,000 each. They also should encourage technological innovation for the first responder community."
The NIST researchers suggest performance metrics that would reveal a thermal camera's ability to (1) detect unusually hot spots, such as electrical outlets and light ballasts; (2) guide fire hose streams toward the fire source; (3) "size-up" thermal conditions inside a building, such as hot walls or ceiling sections, in preparation for entry into a room; (4) identify faces and bodies of firefighters and victims for search and rescue operations; (5) find hot spots and hidden smoldering during reconnaissance in the aftermath of a fire; and (6) locate hazardous material spills. The NFPA's Committee on Emergency Service Electronic Safety Equipment is expected to review the suggestions in 2006.
In addition to NIST, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) are providing funding for NIST's ongoing thermal imaging performance evaluation project. NIST, DHS and USFA recently sponsored a workshop at NIST on "Thermal Imaging Research Needs for First Responders." A copy of the proceedings is available at http://www.fire.nist.gov/. A USFA Web site discussing the project is available at www.usfa.fema.gov/research/safety/nist3.shtm.
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