Nova Scotia

How a hand-held device is a lifesaver in firefighting

Small hand-held cameras have become a major life-saving tool for firefighters in Nova Scotia.

'It saves vital time and seconds to pull that person out and save their lives'

A firefighter in Jefferson, Ore., uses a thermal imaging camera to check for fire hidden underground in this 2009 file photo. (erikjohnphotography/Shutterstock)

When it comes to firefighting equipment it's easy to think of the big things — fire engines, hoses and ladder trucks.

But a hand-held device is one of the biggest lifesavers in firefighting.

Thermal imaging cameras detect differences in temperature and display them on its screen. They allow firefighters to spot people by body heat.

The cameras can see through smoke and detect fire hidden in walls, ceilings and floors.   

Kevin Dean, a district fire chief with the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, said the equipment firefighters use has advanced over the past 30 years, "but thermal imaging in my opinion would be at the top."

Dean doesn't know how many lives the cameras have helped save since they came into widespread use about 20 years ago. All he knows is that many civilians and firefighters owe their lives to the technology.

Thermal imaging cameras show the different temperatures in a home. Areas in red are where the greatest amount of heat is leaving the building. (Dario Sabljak/Shutterstock)

The cameras allow firefighters to find people quickly during a fire. Before thermal cameras, firefighters would often be blinded by smoke as they hunted for people inside a building.

"You're searching, you're on your hands and knees, your right hand kind of follows the room pattern," said Joe Fulton, a fire captain with Halifax Fire.

"But if you have an idea where the victim is in the room because you have the thermal-imaging camera, it saves vital time and seconds to pull that person out and save their lives."

The technology also protects firefighters. 

It allows them to avoid danger because it reveals fire hidden behind walls and ceilings. That's critical information because the fire could weaken those structures.

"For us having fire underneath us, or behind us or below us could be a deadly situation," said Fulton. "Stairwells almost become like a chimney of fire coming up the stairwell, right, so you can get caught in that and trapped."       

Before the cameras, sometimes the only way a firefighter could tell if a fire was in a wall was if paint started to bubble, said Dean.

Since a person's body temperature is different from that of their home, firefighters can use the thermal image to locate them. (Ivan Smuk/Shutterstock)

Even after a fire appeared to be out, firefighters would often have to cut into walls to make sure there were no smaller fires.

The cameras also give firefighters an early warning when rooms may be about to "flash over," which occurs when intense heat causes objects to burst into flames. 

Hazmat crews also value the cameras because they can show when chemicals are heating to dangerous levels or releasing potentially harmful fumes. 

This technology has proved so useful that Halifax Fire has equipped all of its first-in fire crews with the cameras. Dean estimates there are at least 52 of the cameras in use in the Halifax region.

Kevin Dean is a district fire chief with the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency. (Submitted by Kevin Dean )

But the cameras have limitations. Sometimes it is difficult to detect people if objects like furniture are in the way, said Dean.

They also don't work great outside in rain, said Greg Jones, the second vice-president of the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia.               

"Every thermal-imaging camera is different and every manufacturer is different. So it really depends on the manufacturer and the type of equipment you're using," he said. 

But Jones said the benefits of the technology far outweigh any problems. 

When the cameras were first being adopted for use by Halifax Fire, they cost up to $30,000 each, said Dean.

Only a handful were bought, but more were purchased as they proved their usefulness and their prices dropped, said Fulton. 

Thermal imaging cameras cut down on rescue time. (WijnandG/Shutterstock)

The price has dropped over the years to between $6,000 and $7,000.

That's still a hefty price tag for many rural volunteer fire departments. That's one of the reasons why the cameras aren't used everywhere in the province, said Dean.

"It's important for fire crews to have this technology," said Dean. "It makes it safer for them, and I know it helps in saving lives.

"If your local fire department doesn't have one it would be great if you would support them with the money to purchase one."