Wait, did I just say camera?
By Manfred Kihn
One of the most undesirable roles in today’s fire service is conducting fire prevention inspections. Dealing with the public, walking through buildings, and writing reports sound like fun, eh! No, it’s not, but it has to be done, so let’s see what we can do to make it more enjoyable.
Off you go with the required tools in hand to conduct your proper fire prevention inspections including a clipboard, tape measure, flashlight, camera, and so on. Wait, did I just say camera? Yes, I did, but it’s the 35-mm kind of camera. Have you considered using a thermal imager (TI)? A TI is another valuable tool to be used for inspection purposes. Can you see everything through your naked eye, including potential hidden hazards that you are supposed to be identifying?
The holidays are right around the corner, and that means lots of decorations, lights inside and outside the house, power strips, and a massive amount of those unsightly extension cords. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and those extension cords are buried under carpets, tucked behind cabinets or furniture, and so on. Let’s also consider what condition those extension cords are in—are they new or are they older, dried-out plastic that is cracked and just waiting to overheat and catch fire?
Based on your firefighting experience, bringing a TI with you during these fire prevention inspections would make your job that much easier, don’t you think? You see with your naked eye, but the TI detects infrared heat, which your eyes cannot see unless you physically reach out and touch it. Sure, go ahead and bend over and crawl under that desk to touch the wiring. Or, stand back and take a look with your TI and have confirmation and temperature measurement at your fingertips. Better yet, if your TI has a built-in digital video recorder (DVR), take a picture or video for your file and record keeping.
Inspections are conducted of occupied properties to ensure that the structures meet the locally adopted building and fire codes. The public looks at firefighters as subject matter experts, and our focus is on preventing fires and eliminating safety hazards. As you inspect, take a periodic look with your TI to confirm where the heat sources are and how hot they are. You can now determine, based on your experience, if it’s a concern or if it meets code. An overloaded electrical outlet may cause a fire or a pile of cardboard boxes in the back room appears OK, but what you don’t see is the baseboard heater under those boxes. You can verify that through the lens of the TI without having to climb through all those boxes. A TI can make your job easier.
Other potential fire hazards are overheated breakers on an electrical panel and the heat signature emitted from an extension cord under the carpet that is constantly being walked on. These are potential fire hazards that can be detected using a TI. Think about your large appliances such as dryers and ovens. Are they wired correctly?
As I have preached the gospel about thermal imaging before, practice makes perfect. If you don’t have a lot of experience using a TI, start at your desk in the fire station. Look at the obvious with your naked eye and compare the differences with the TI. Look at your computer and electrical outlets and determine what you didn’t see with your naked eye. Now, walk around as if you were walking through a commercial building inspection and identify what and where the potential hazards are hiding. You want to be professional when conducting your inspections, so the more experience and knowledge you have using a TI, the better inspector you will be.
Fire department roles and responsibilities can change in your community, but education, enforcement, and inspection remain constants. Use the tools available to you; if your Fire Prevention Bureau does not have a TI or does not have access to one, then purchase one. TIs have gotten smaller, lighter, and more affordable over the years. You can’t afford not to have or use one.
Manfred Kihn is a 19-year veteran of the fire service, having served as an ambulance officer, emergency services specialist, firefighter, captain, and fire chief. He has been a member of Bullard’s Emergency Responder team since 2005 and is the company’s fire training specialist for thermal imaging technology. He is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor and is a recipient of the Ontario Medal for Firefighters Bravery. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.