Thermal cameras are ‘eyes in the smoke’ |

Thermal cameras are ‘eyes in the smoke’

Dave Moller

A new tool is allowing western Nevada County firefighters to save buildings, and one day, it may even save a life.

Thermal image cameras that can find hot spots in covered walls and the heat from a body are being used by almost all area fire districts, according to Grass Valley Fire Chief Hank Weston. The Rough and Ready and Ophir Hill departments will soon get their thermal cameras, thanks to grant money landed by the county.

Grass Valley has three of the cameras – costing $9,000 apiece – and share the third with the police. Officers can use it “to find bad guys on roofs and crawl spaces,” Weston said, “or if they’re looking for Alzheimer’s patients” who have wandered off at night.

“They work off of heat,” Weston said, and allow firefighters to go into smoke-filled rooms and locate humans. During home fires, elderly people and children tend to go to places where they feel safe and can get trapped by fires, Weston said.

“They go into closets and under beds, and they won’t come out,” Weston said. With the thermal cameras, “you can find them and speed up the rescue time.”

No one has reported saving a fire victim from death here with a thermal imaging camera, but it has happened nationally. According to the Web site, two firefighters were able to save a 2-year-old boy from a fire in Indiana after smoke drove his father out during a rescue effort.

In another case in New Jersey, firefighters detected an arm through the smoke and rescued three children in a fire that claimed their father, his girlfriend and another child, the Web site said.

In western Nevada County, the cameras are being used so far to detect hot spots so that firefighters do not have to rip up walls and ceilings to find them.

“It saves the home in the long run,” said Grass Valley Fire Department Captain Loray Johnston.

“We get a lot of chimney fires,” Weston said, “and rather than tear through the attic, we can get the fire out and test for other hot areas” with the aid of the thermal cameras.

“We’ve had a few structure saves” with the cameras, according to Fire Chief Tim Fike of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District. In one instance, no fire was evident, despite a burning smell. When firefighters scanned the walls, they found a short inside an electrical box that “showed a huge glow” on the camera lens.

“We also use it to immediately show where a fire is in a structure,” Fike said. “It’s a great tool.”

According to Capt. Tucker Eslinger, the Ophir Hill department is currently sharing a camera with the Peardale-Chicago Park Fire Department and is using it in training.

“It’s quite the interesting tool,” Eslinger said. “It’s basically eyes in the smoke.”

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