Sunday, January 16, 2000

Thermal-imaging camera is firefighter's lifeline

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Monroe firefighter John King (foreground) used the thermal-imaging camera to find Andy Turner and Scott Clasgens in a Jan. 8 fire.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        MONROE — Visibility was zero. Acrid, black smoke roiled around them. Flames shot over their heads. The searing heat warped their helmets.

        Scott Clasgens and Andrew Turner squatted in the hallway of the burning Monroe house on Jan. 8, unable to see each other — though they were just inches apart.

        The dark hallway became a confusing maze, with nothing to help pinpoint an escape route. The firefighters/paramedics felt helpless. They wondered aloud about their fate.

        “We agreed we were in trouble,” said Mr. Turner, 24. “We thought we might not make it out. We thought, "This is it.' I wondered if I'd see my fiancee, future stepson and my other loved ones again.”

        But even as they feared for their lives, their colleagues were on the way, guided by a high-tech rescue tool this small city's department had been given only five months earlier. Fellow firefighters/paramedics John King and Jamie Verdin used the new thermal imaging camera — which can pick up heat sources through thick smoke, walls, doors and behind furniture — to help locate and rescue the stranded firefighters.

Closeup shows what the camera operator sees - here, its Turner and Clasgens in a totally dark room.
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        The frightening episode occurred as Monroe Fire Department crews searched the burning Lindy Avenue house for its occupants, reportedly up to five children and two adults. Three adults were found; all were dead. The danger to firefighters lasted just minutes, but it seemed like hours, the firefighters said.

        “I believe if the guys had just come to search for us by hand, by sight, it might have been a different story,” said Mr. Clasgens, 31. “That camera definitely sped things up. We were very, very lucky.”

        Thermal imaging cameras, which cost an average of $15,000 to $25,000 depending on style and options, are gaining in popularity. Monroe's, which cost about $15,000, was bought with funds raised in a drive launched by residents Monte and Gina Miltenberger.

  Some ways fire departments use thermal imaging cameras:
  • Search and rescue, to find potential victims in such places as burning and/or smoke-filled buildings and wooded areas.
  • Early detection, to find the actual source of the fire, not just the smoke. That helps firefighters avoid knocking down walls or ripping up floors to find the source, significantly reducing property damage. And it allows firefighters to be positioned properly immediately.
  • Investigating, to determine how far the fire has gotten in the building, if it's inside the walls, to pinpoint hot spots, and to look for holes in the floors that might be hazardous to firefighters.
  • Salvage efforts, to help save particular items during fires.
  • Scanning fire scenes, after the blaze is extinguished, to look for hot spots that might reignite.
  • Helping manage hazardous materials incidents, by identifying vapor and gas sources and by determining levels of liquids in containers.
  Source: International Association of Fire Chiefs.
        Estimates indicate that about 10 percent of fire departments nationwide have them, including an estimated two dozen departments in Greater Cincinnati. Others plan to buy them this year or are considering purchases.

        The Cincinnati Fire Division has $150,000 budgeted for cameras this year. A camera the department was testing last week came into play the same day the drama was unfolding in Monroe, said Assistant Chief Gary Auffart.

        About 882,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen, a farm fertilizer, spilled from a ruptured tank at Southside River Rail in Riverside. The rupture damaged nearby tanks containing dangerous substances, and firefighters used the thermal imaging camera to check how full those tanks were.

        “That helped us determine the danger,” Chief Auffart said. “I think we'll find many uses for these cameras that we didn't think of before. They're a valuable tool.”

        Saving lives is rare. But there are plenty of other benefits, including reducing property damage by locating fire sources early, said Steve Ashbrock, chief of the Madeira & Indian Hill Joint Fire District, and Middletown Fire Chief John Sauter. They said their cameras are used often for various reasons, but warned that they are secondary to good procedures and training.

        Sycamore Fire Chief B.J. Jetter said firefighters there use the camera to search buildings, check for spread of fire, to determine the heat source, and to check walls for heat, which helps avoid unnecessary property damage.

        “I think it's been the best investment as far as technological upgrades the department ever had,” Chief Jetter said.

        Every volunteer fire department in Dearborn County, Ind., should have cameras in a few months, said Charlie Fehrman, county councilman. The council, working with Lawrenceburg Mayor Melvin Gabbard, has set aside about $360,000 from gaming revenues to buy cameras for the departments, Mr. Fehrman said.

        The Newport Fire Department has had a camera a year, and would like to have them on every piece of fire equipment, but the cost is prohibitive, said Capt. Bill Ravenscraft.

        Covington Assistant Fire Chief John Bornhorn said his department will buy at least two cameras soon.

        Mason has benefited from “thermal imaging” for about two years, said Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder.

        “They can monitor for pre-flashover conditions, which can definitely make the difference between life and death,” Chief Goldfeder said.

        A flashover in the Monroe fire triggered the threat to firefighters.

        As Mr. Clasgens and Mr. Turner searched in one part of the house, Mr. King and Mr. Virden, on his last day with the department before transferring to Middletown, searched another area with the camera.

        A flashover that caused a bedroom to instantly erupt, shooting flames throughout the area, trapped Mr. Clasgens and Mr. Turner, who had just found two victims in the bathroom and exited into the hallway. In the heavy smoke, noise and flames, they became disoriented and could not find the exit or a window.

        Mr. Virden and Mr. King, Mr. Turner's roommate and best friend, was nearby and heard a cry for help.

        “There was a lot of anxiety,” Mr. King said. “With the flashover, the visibility went to total zero. The heat went up dramatically. A combination of factors saved them ... including us being nearby at the right time with the camera.”

        “The conditions changed rapidly. The story could have had a bad ending,” Mr. Verdin said.

        The firefighters were unable to save the occupants — homeowner Terry Langdon, his brother, Matt Langdon of Hamilton, and family friend June Reck of Middletown.

        But Fire Chief Mark Neu said there could have been five bodies, if not for the camera.

        “I believe that piece of equipment helped save those lives,” he said. “Safety measures must come first. But in the event that that fails, it's sure good to have these tools to help.”

        Mr. Miltenberger said he was overwhelmed with emotion at hearing the fire story.

        “I thought it was great that the camera did its job and that it was available to them. That was the goal, to save lives,” he said.

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