Fire dept. buys special camera

Thermal-imaging tool allows crews to see through smoke


— The tool has proven it can save lives during a fire, and the Steamboat Springs Fire Department recently purchased one through grants.

The department bought a thermal-imaging camera, which will give firefighters the ability to see in fires where rooms are filled with thick, black smoke.

The department was able to buy the $17,000 camera after securing grants from the state Forest Service, Wal-Mart and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

"There is no other tool that can match it," said Capt. Paul Yonekawa, an 11-year veteran of the department. "It allows us to find someone in a timely fashion, locate the source of a fire and maintain control over a crew."

The thermal-imaging camera senses heat and is so sensitive it illuminates anything with a half-degree of heat.

"Because the camera senses heat, it gives us the ability to see through smoke," said Michael Arce, a firefighter for the past six years. "This helps us speed up the process in finding someone in a fire and attacking a fire."

The camera is similar to a thermal-imaging helmet the department purchased a few years ago; however, it is better equipped than the helmet because it is more versatile, Arce said.

The helmet weighs 6 pounds and can be utilized by one person. In an emergency, the firefighter wearing the helmet can also give his crew directions.

"It is like directing someone who is blindfolded," he said.

The thermal-imaging camera weighs 5 pounds and is similar to a video camera.

Because of this, the camera can be passed among firefighters and its screen can be seen by more firefighters than the one who is holding it, Arce said.

"It is very easy to gather the group, point it and the whole team can see what is inside the room," he said.

A rechargeable battery powers the camera. It also has the capability to transmit a signal 900 feet from where the camera is being used. The signal can be aired on a television screen, which would allow fire command to watch a fire crew inside a burning building.

At this time, the department does not have the capabilities to transmit the signal, but getting the equipment is a priority, Arce said.

The camera can also be used in other emergencies, Yonekawa said.

The camera can pinpoint the source of a fire from outside a building and detect any hot spots that could remain in a structure when flames have been doused.

The camera could also be used to find a person who has been ejected out of a vehicle in an accident at night.

"It is not just for saving lives," he said. "It can be used for everything."

Yonekawa, Arce and firefighter Shawn Zwak were instrumental in the department's effort to get the camera.

Last April, the volunteer department gathered at Christian Heritage School and trained using the camera. With smoke machines, firefighters trained in two smoke-filled rooms using the camera.

Arce said the department would be having another training session with the camera sometime next month.

The department is planning to raise funds for the purchase of a second camera.

"We would like to have a camera at our downtown station and at our mountain station," Arce said.

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


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