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New Cameras Extra Eyes for Firefighters

Hand-held devices pick up body heat.

Firefighters in Fairfax County now have an extra set of eyes. The kind that can pierce the blackness of a smoke-filled room and locate a potential casualty.

Able to be held in one hand, it is no bigger than a home video camera. It is known as a T3 Thermal Imaging Camera.

"Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has just received 18 of these cameras," said Daniel L. Schmidt, department public information officer. Mount Vernon and Gunston stations each have one.

"This allows us to find people when we cannot see them. It focuses on body heat. This will go on every one of our calls. On land or on the water," said Gunston Station Capt. James M. Chinn.

His enthusiasm was seconded by Captain Tyrone Harrington, Mount Vernon Station. "I've been around fires for 30 years. This is the best tool to come along in my career," he said.

"Hollywood portrays fires as a lot of flame and little smoke. It's just the opposite," Harrington insisted. "Now instead of crawling down a smoke-filled hallway or into a room to find potential victims, we can turn on a button and walk down that hallway. That makes our job safer and their chances of survival much better. "

In addition to being a lifesaver in a dense smoke environment, the new cameras can also work in water. Gunston Station operates the department's main river rescue unit with its boat, the Earl Kane.

"Before we got this new unit, we had a larger one on loan from Fort Belvoir. We used it to find lost boaters. People's body temperature will remain high in the water for quite a while. It will also pick up engine heat from both vehicles and boats," Chinn explained.

"Everything in the world has a thermal image. If there is a fire in the wall, you can see the fire through the viewing screen on the camera," Harrington said.

FUNDED THROUGH A State and Local Emergency Preparedness Grant, each camera cost approximately $9,800. That's about half of what they were just a couple of years ago, according to Schmidt. The earlier version was also about twice the size.

Based on the principle of infrared detection, these units enable firefighters to not only locate potential victims but also find hidden fires and locate a heat source in hazardous situations, Schmidt said. "They also play a key role in search and rescue efforts," he noted.

In addition to helping firefighters find and rescue those trapped in burning structures, the cameras increase safety for first responders. "Now, we can see a hole in the floor that before would pose a real risk to us. It enables us to do our jobs safer and quicker. Especially when every second counts," Harrington said.

"It goes with us on every fire call. My job is to lead the firefighters into the fire, and this goes with me. We now can see in the dark. Just close your eyes as tight as possible and you get an idea of the conditions we have traditionally been working in," Harrington related.

CHINN DEMONSTRATED that point by taking the camera into the windowless dark bunk room of Station 20. It was pitch black, with no way to see objects or persons. When the camera was switched on, there were two firefighters clearly visible, as well as all the furniture in the room.

Had it been an emergency situation, there was no doubt as to the location of potential victims. "This works on heat. It's very different from night vision," according to Chinn. "You actually see the image. There is no confusion."

Harrington added, "When we enter a room that's on fire, the temperature can be as high as 1,000 degrees. Whatever is glowing white will show up on the camera screen. One person with this camera can do the work of many."

Built by Bullard Manufacturing in Cynthiana, Ky., each camera weighs about 2 1/2 and measures 8 inches long and 5 inches high. It can easily be held and operated with one hand.

Moneys for the cameras represent the first actual appropriation of a $2.275 million grant requested by the department to assist in the development and implementation of a Statewide Domestic Preparedness Strategy, according to Schmidt. "It is designed to enhance first-responder capabilities in response to terrorist incidents," he said.

IN ADDITION TO the cameras, the department has requested funding for a Mass Casualty and Disaster Unit, Mobile Communications Unit, and flash gear. "We hope to get $200,000 for multijurisdictional training. It all comes under the umbrella of terrorism prevention," Schmidt clarified.

Harrington predicted that the thermal cameras will eventually evolve to the point where "you'll see this capability built into every firefighter’s face mask. It won't have to be hand-held by anyone.

"But right now this device helps everyone. Us, potential victims, everyone."