Northwest NEWS

January 31, 2000

Local News

New lifesaving gear for Woodinville firefighters

lifesaving gear

Woodinville firefighters were trained last week in the use of the department's new heat-seeking device for locating victims in smoke-filled areas.
Staff photo by Marshall Haley.

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   WOODINVILLE--Three Woodinville Fire & Life Safety District (WFLSD) firefighters crawled into a darkened room in single file on their hands and knees. Tethered by holding the leg of the partner in front of them, they turned right inside the door and advanced along the wall, circling the entire room searching for victims. The third man's right hand held the left leg of the second, sweeping his left arm and leg across the middle of the room. In the past, they all would have been searching completely blind.

   This time, the leader could "see," thanks to a thermal imaging unit strapped to his helmet. As usual, he was constantly talking, letting the others know what moves he was making. But this time, he could also tell them what he saw. On the fourth wall, he finally found a "victim," a rubber dummy that still emanated a low heat-energy field.

   "They couldn't see the 'victim' as they entered the room, because the dummy is as cold as a dead person, but these units can detect a heat range from five to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit," said Ron Lucier, employee of FLIR Systems, the New Jersey manufacturer of the device.

   This was just a training exercise to orient firefighters with an invaluable new work tool that detects infrared light waves, which the human eye cannot. If you saw the scene in the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games, showing a satellite's nighttime view of commandos "neutralizing" terrorist camp personnel in Algeria, you have a pretty good idea how these units light up a dark room. The more heat, the brighter the image. WFLSD Lt. Tad Wineman demonstrated how his handprint on a wall showed as much light as the hand he'd just removed. The exercise's dark room simulated a smoke-filled room.

   Thick smoke prevents firefighters from seeing flames inside a building. Better insulation in modern buildings exacerbates that problem, since less smoke can escape. And no flashlights can penetrate thick smoke. The thermal imaging device enables firefighters to see the heat source emanations through heavy smoke. That means they can more quickly detect a fire's source before it fully engages a building, said Lucier. An engineer and firefighter, he has been on the road since August, training fire departments from Maine to Alaska how to use the units.

   The units can also save more firefighter lives, by enabling them to see unusually hot spots in a floor or wall that might be ready to engulf them in flames, alerting them to evacuate. For example, that might have saved four firefighters' lives at Seattle's Pang warehouse fire several years ago.

   "For rescues, every substance contains different degrees of heat and shape, so we can see the difference between a wall surface, a floor, and a human body, which is hotter," said Wineman, who organized the training exercise. "We can see structural outlines, like studs in walls. We will save a lot of time in locating victims, because we can even see their body heat through walls. That will save property owners money, because we won't have to break through as many walls to see if anyone is trapped behind them. That will reduce insurance costs, which we all would otherwise end up paying for. Not only will these units help us find people more easily at fire scenes, they can also help us find car wreck victims who might have been thrown from a car.

   "I'm a resident of this district, and I appreciate the protection this technology offers the community and to my family. We want to thank the fire commissioners for researching and buying this equipment. They are responsible for giving taxpayers their money's worth, and they definitely did with this purchase. Although each of these units costs about $22,000, they have a life expectancy of 15-20 years. We think they will more than pay for themselves, when you consider the value of a human life."