Evaluating Thermal Imagers

Jonathan Bastian Evaluating Thermal Imagers
Five Steps to Selecting the Best TI for Your Agency, 2006
by Jonathan Bastian

Evaluating Thermal Imagers

The right tool for the job
Because thermal imagers are quickly becoming a necessary tool for fire departments, the number of suppliers and models has expanded, giving fire departments more choices than ever when it comes to choosing a thermal imager. Evaluators must select among several technologies, a great number of features, and a wide range of service and support offerings. With the increasing complexity of the market, many fire departments are finding it difficult to determine which thermal imager and which accessories they should purchase. This article aims to provide a picture of the ideal evaluation process, which will result in your department making the best purchase decision.

Step One: Team Up and Learn
Start by selecting a team of people to manage the thermal imager evaluation. It is important to include people of different ranks and specialties, including an officer with decision authority as well as line firefighters who will actually be using the thermal imager. This variety ensures that the selected unit is the actual unit that best meets the fire department’s needs.

Before initiating the evaluation, take the time to learn the basics of thermal imaging. How does the technology work? What are the uses and limitations of thermal imagers? Evaluation teams should seek instruction from local departments using thermal imagers, local or state training agencies, private consulting or training groups, national trade shows, training seminars and even thermal imager manufacturers. Be sure to verify what you are learning from as many independent sources as possible, because there is a lot of conflicting and inaccurate information in the field.

Fire departments lacking the resources or time to conduct an independent evaluation can request results from trusted departments that have conducted extensive evaluations. By using evaluation reports from outside sources, a department can gain the perspective of someone who has been through the process, without investing the time to conduct a thorough evaluation. If you rely on another fire department’s report, try to compare their operational needs with yours to ensure that what is best for them is also best for you.

Inspecting a TI

Step Two: Do Your Homework
Initiate the homework phase by gathering information from distributors and thermal imager manufacturers, with the goal of identifying all of the current products available. Next, get direct input from fire departments currently using thermal imagers. While the equipment officer may offer insight on the evaluation process his fire department undertook, make sure you also talk to the members of the engine company to which a thermal imager is assigned. Ask how well the unit has handled the rigors of firefighting, the value of various features on the unit and what type of service and support was received from the manufacturer and/or local distributor. Ask the FD about specific manufacturer claims on options or performance to verify if the unit performs as advertised. If you are new to thermal imaging technology, you will benefit from gleaning information and learning from the experiences of a number of different fire departments.

After researching what is available as well as what other fire departments have found useful, develop an initial outline specifying what you believe are the critical features for a thermal imager. Differentiate between “essential features” (such as heat and water resistance) and “desirable features” (such as 2-hour battery life). Then review the units available, and determine if you can immediately eliminate any of them from your evaluation process. You may eliminate them because they lack a feature you feel is critical, or because a unit received poor reviews from other fire departments. Even if you can limit the initial field to five or six thermal imagers, the evaluation process can demand a great deal of time and resources.

classroom evaluation

Step Three: The Classroom Test
Once you have narrowed the field to a manageable number of potential units, it is time to gain more detailed information and first-hand experience. Schedule a day for each manufacturer or local representative (or several of them) to make a “classroom presentation.” To be fair to the sales people, plan on 20 to 30 minutes per thermal imager. This gives the sales person time to show you the features and benefits of his thermal imagers while you gather other information, including:

  • Standard and optional features available on the unit, which can include temperature measurement, wireless video transmitter and color display.
  • Unit operating procedures, including unit activation, battery changing and charging, and use of additional features.
  • Service issues, including length of warranty (be sure to clarify what it covers), availability of extended warranty, service turnaround and availability of loaner units.
  • Performance characteristics, including durability, heat resistance, water resistance, transmitter strength, etc.
  • The cost of the unit, including additional features, extended warranties, accessories and spare parts.
  • Support offered as part of the overall package, including training (clarify the type of training: 20 minutes of how to turn it on, or two hours of how thermal imagers work?), fundraising support, web resources and ongoing education.

Evaluating teams should always keep one key note in mind: there is no recognized consensus standard for thermal imager performance. As a result, fire departments should ensure that the supplier proves every claim he makes. If the supplier says his/her thermal imager can stay underwater for an hour, fill up the kitchen sink and time how long it lasts. If the supplier says the thermal imager can be tossed across the room, then clear a path and let the tossing begin. If the claim is that the thermal imager is so strong it can act as a wheel chock, then place it under your aerial or tanker and release the parking brakes. While most suppliers are honest and ethical, some may unfairly stretch the truth to win your business. To protect yourself and your department’s purchase, do not accept any claim or statement as fact until the supplier proves it.

For convenience, attempt to schedule all presentations on the same day or the same week, with all evaluation committee members present to ask questions and document their impressions of each manufacturer. Ideally, committee members should use a checklist or table to document their conclusions and to help ensure that a fair and equal comparison is made between the thermal imager.

During your evaluation, be sure to use thermal imagers in a variety of everyday tasks, including sizeup and overhaul.

Step Four: The Real World Test
The real world test, or hands-on evaluation, is the most critical part of your evaluation process. While one thermal imager may stand out in the classroom, the fire department’s final decision could be different after firefighters get the opportunity to use thermal imagers under realistic conditions. In the evaluation, some thermal imagers will show they look and act better in the classroom than in a real fire. Some features seem great in the classroom, but do not perform as expected once they venture into the real world of emergency response. As with the classroom presentations, aim to evaluate all of the units on the same day. This will allow each unit to be compared side-by-side in real time, under similar conditions.

Part of any successful evaluation includes determining how easily firefighters can carry an imager as well as their normal supply of equipment

Careful planning and preparation are essential to a successful hands-on evaluation. Before the evaluation, decide how you will test the features that mean the most to your department, and develop a checklist to make sure that committee members are using the same criteria. Test each feature of the unit under various conditions and scenarios, such as live fire, simulated hazmat incidents, fire-alarm investigation and outdoor searches. Crawl with each unit; look under objects. Determine if the TI can be carried up a ladder easily, or if a hose team can advance a line while carrying the thermal imager. Do not fall into the trap of “sitting around the campfire.” It is common for fire departments to make part of the evaluation a group sitting in the burn room staring at the fire for 15 minutes. Remember that in real life, hose teams extinguish the fire when they find it; they do not watch it burn for 15 minutes.

Have each member write notes about each thermal imager immediately after they use it. To help quantify the evaluation process, members should be encouraged to rank specific factors using a number scale. Develop the scale and factor sheet in advance, grading such aspects as ease of use, performance in the fire, ability to carry other equipment, etc.

Step Five: The Decision
Following the completion of the classroom and hands-on evaluations, it is time to decide which thermal imager best meets the department’s needs. Compare the written notes and total the scored rankings. If there are specific features that are more valuable, you may want to consider weighing them more heavily. Remember to include non-tangible issues such as service and support, which will not only help you get your units into operation, but will also assist you in keeping them in service for years to come. Consider exactly how repairs are handled and the overall support you will receive. Do not forget the information you gathered from other fire departments about their experiences with thermal imagers. Your neighbor may be the best proof of what happens after you sign the purchase order.

Once you have determined which thermal imager you will purchase, place your order or formulate the bid documents. The distributor or manufacturer can help you write appropriate bid specifications.

Despite the wider acceptance of thermal imagers in the fire service, there is still much misinformation and misunderstanding about the technology. The reality is that thermal imagers are still expensive tools. As a result, potential buyers must perform the proper amount of preparation and evaluation to ensure that they purchase the best overall value possible. Remember that value is not just price. Spending $4,000 less on thermal imagers may seem like a bargain, until those thermal imagers are repeatedly out of service or sitting in compartments because the line firefighters find them awkward or unusable. Like any other capital expenditure, fire departments should expect their units to provide years of reliable service. To do this successfully means selecting the thermal imager with the best design and features, best record of accomplishment in real world performance and best possible service and support. It is not easy to make a proper selection effort, but time well spent on the process will ensure that the fire department and the public it serves will reap long-term benefits from these valuable tools.