Thermal camera purchase sought for Cape

Saturday, February 22, 2003

Black smoke fills a house laden with fiery hazards, and someone is trapped inside. Every second counts, but no one can see a thing.

That's the extreme situation Cape Girardeau firefighters want to avoid and why they're asking for donations toward the purchase of a thermal- imaging device, firefighter Shawn Morris said. The local International Association of Firefighters union is collecting the money to buy the device and present it to the city's fire department.

The expense is cost-prohibitive for many departments. Typical models range from $9,000 to $17,000. The cities of Jackson, Scott City, Marble Hill, Dexter and Sikeston all have such cameras, most paid for by donations. Scott City is preparing to purchase its second device this spring, said deputy chief Billy Crump.

The devices are based on the principle that all objects emit waves of thermal energy. The hotter an object, the more energy waves are emitted. Thermal imaging devices translate the waves into images on a screen.

Capt. Brian Shaffer said such a device could have helped rescuers during a house-fire search in November 1997. Crawling on hands and knees, Shaffer and firefighter Kelly Allen made their way down a smoke-filled hallway, careful to keep their shoulders against a wall as a guide. They came upon a large hole burnt through the floor into the basement, where the fire ignited.

Shaffer crawled about 15 feet into the living room before running into something soft. Unable to see through the smoke, he felt the object all over and determined it was the unconscious victim. He and Allen pulled the man out of the house. Unfortunately, the man died a month later of complications from smoke inhalation, Shaffer said.

"We wasted valuable minutes looking when a thermal imaging device could have told us exactly where he was," Shaffer said. "We might have gotten him out a little sooner and that could have made the difference in saving his life. They're pretty amazing devices."

The cameras can penetrate about 200 yards. The images help rescuers formulate search plans and can be recorded for training films. Property damage can be lessened when hot spots can be identified more quickly and extinguished.

In addition, the device can "see" the temperature of hazardous chemicals spilled into bodies of water -- including streams, lakes and rivers -- making cleanup easier and safer. The cameras can show how much liquid is in a large tank and find the fire line in a grassland wildfire.

A PowerPoint presentation about the cameras is available for viewing. Anyone wanting to learn more is encouraged to contact Morris at Station No. 1.

"I don't care how long it takes me, we'll keep on going until we have the money to buy it," he said. "It's going to help us do our job better and bring back our eyesight in a fire."

335-6611, extension 160

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