Camera may help save lives

Firefighters use tool to 'see' in smoke-filled rooms

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— The Steamboat Springs Fire Department is interested in buying a $15,000 tool that will give firefighters eyes in rooms filled with thick, black smoke.

The tool is a thermal-imaging camera. The volunteer fire department gathered Wednesday night to see how the hand-held camera works.

Using two smoke machines and numerous burners, which emit controlled flames, the firefighters used the camera to train in two smoke-filled rooms at the Christian Heritage School using the camera.

The smoke filling the two unfinished rooms came from the smoke machines.

"It is amazing," said Shawn Zwak, a firefighter who is coordinating fund-raising to buy the camera. "This can make our job simpler and safer."

The thermal-imaging camera is so sensitive it illuminates anything with a half-degree of heat, said Jeff Ainsworth, a sales representative with Emergency Products and Services.

Ainsworth traveled to Steamboat to give a demonstration of the camera to Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble and a majority of the 28-member volunteer department.

Ainsworth demonstrated the camera's remarkable ability to seek heat by placing his hand on a wall for a moment. When Ainsworth removed his hand, the print could be seen on the wall with the camera.

Struble was impressed with the camera's capabilities.

"This camera is a high priority," Struble said. "It has so many uses. But most important it can find a person in a smoke-filled room who may happen to be trapped."

The thermal-imager hit the market about three years ago and was originally designed for the military, Ainsworth said.

The camera not only aids firefighters in being able to see people or animals in smoke-filled rooms, it can help with fighting a fire.

"The camera can pinpoint the source of a fire from outside," Ainsworth said. "This allows command officers to assess the fire and determine the best way to fight it."

The camera can transmit a signal to a television screen 900 feet from where it is being used.

"We would know if a crew got in trouble," Struble said while watching some of his men use the camera Wednesday night. "This gives us more eyes in the room. The crew might miss something that we might pick up on out here."

It also can see hot spots that need to be dealt with after the flames are doused to make sure a fire is completely out before firefighters leave the scene.

The camera is similar to a thermal-imaging helmet the department purchased a few years ago.

"The helmet weighs six pounds," Ainsworth said. "That is a lot of weight on a person's head. The camera weighs five pounds. The helmet can only be used by one person, but the camera can be passed among firefighters.

"A firefighter can also lead others into a smoke-filled room with the camera, because what the leader is seeing is being seen by the other members of the crew."

To raise money for the camera's purchase, Zwak has approached Wal-Mart and the restaurant association for donations. The fire department also has submitted a grant request to the Yampa Valley Foundation.

"We would like to get two cameras," he said. "We would like to have one for each fire engine at each station."

The camera has not only been a hit with fire departments across the country, it is being used by other agencies that conduct search and rescues, fight wildland fires and clean up toxic spills, Ainsworth said.

"Chemicals, like gasoline, leave a heat trail," he said. "If gasoline is spilled into a river, you can track the flow of it using the camera."

However, Ainsworth said the camera's capability in a smoke-filled room is its best feature.

"This can save a life," he said. "No doubt about it."

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