Traveling throughout the world teaching firefighters how to effectively use thermal imaging technology is extremely rewarding.
That’s why, when I unexpectedly receive a call from a fire chief asking for training on his department’s thermal imaging camera (TIC), I’m right there. During training, I ask to use the department’s TIC to help me teach the class about the many benefits of thermal imaging technology. This also gives me an opportunity to examine the department’s TIC. Most of the time, I’m handed a TIC that needs at least a good wipe down to clean off the soot and grime that have accumulated from everyday use. Sometimes, however, there’s a TIC that is just so filthy that it requires a considerable amount of time to clean to get it back to its original condition. This scenario recently took place at one of my TIC trainings.
The fire chief had asked me to train his crew on why thermal imaging technology was so vital to firefighting and to also inspect his TIC, which was not performing the way it did when he first purchased the tool. When I saw the condition of the TIC, it became clear to me that the performance issues cited by the chief were from firefighter neglect. Certainly, this was not intentional neglect by the crew. This crew never thought about cleaning the TIC after each call. Think about the abuse a TIC gets when you take it into a structural fire. That same soot, carbon, and grime that you wash off you and your gear after a call is embedded into your TIC. After every call, you need to clean and check your TIC so it’s ready for the next call.
A TIC is probably the most overlooked tool when firefighters perform daily and weekly checks at the station. Have you ever cleaned the TIC’s lens or display cover? Do you know you can easily unscrew the display cover and wipe the soot and dirt from it? Do you check your TIC’s battery life? You perform daily or weekly checks of your fire apparatus to be sure every feature is performing correctly. You always check your self-contained breathing apparatus before and after each use. So why not your TIC?
TIC MAINTENANCE PLAN
After my visit with this chief, I thought it would be helpful to share with you a TIC maintenance plan for keeping this tool on call and ready to deliver the best service in the most critical situations.
First, always inspect the outside of the TIC for damage and cleanliness. Keeping your TIC clean means the surface of your TIC should look shiny. The reason is not because you want to show off your TIC but because the shinier the TIC surface, the more radiant heat the camera will reflect rather than absorb. Excessive soot buildup will lead to higher absorption of radiant heat and will affect how long the TIC may run in extremely hot environments. All you need to clean your TIC is soap and water. Any dish detergent you have at the station will clean it as well. If you have stubborn stains, a degreaser is a good option for eliminating them. Never use straight bleach or hydrocarbon-based solvents on your TIC; they can damage the thermoplastic housing or rubber seals.
Once you have removed the dirt and soot from your TIC, you can visually inspect it for cracks in the plastic of the outer shell and any separation of external components. It’s also important to inspect all rubber or neoprene, checking for pliability, crumbling, tears, or other visible damage. Cracks, separations, and damaged seals are common causes for water intrusion into the TIC. All TICs are IP67 rated (waterproof for 30-minute immersions in three feet of water) or better, but water intrusion is a concern because it can lead to costly repairs. Inspecting your TIC after each call is the best way to keep it in working condition.
It’s very important that the lens or window remains clean and dirt-free so image quality is not affected. The chief who said his TIC was not performing well had stains on his TIC’s lens, which directly affected image quality. This buildup can reduce the amount of thermal energy getting into the TIC, reducing overall picture quality as well as causing a blurry image. Cleaning this area is not easy, so if you are having image quality issues, call your manufacturer to ask which cleaners or solvents to use. In extreme cases, replacing the lens may be your only option.
Once you have cleaned and inspected your TIC, it’s important to perform battery checks on your unit to ensure that, when needed, your battery life is full. TICs come with different battery technologies—nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, lithium iron phosphate, and alkaline. Some batteries can run up to eight hours. When researching this, it’s a good idea to determine initial operating runtimes and the number of cycles for which TIC batteries are rated. Batteries with higher cycle life ratings will, under typical conditions, last longer.
The potential lifespan of your TIC batteries depends on your preventive maintenance plan and how often you use the TIC in the field. If you use your TIC multiple times a day, the life of your batteries may average about one year. If you use it only a few times a month, you may not need to replace batteries for two or three years. How often you use the TIC, in what kind of temperature extremes, and how you charge and maintain the batteries will all impact battery performance. I like to perform battery tests on my TIC once a week, checking for any physical signs of damage, ensuring that I’m constantly rotating the batteries in my unit, and keeping my batteries fully charged. At least once a month, be sure to verify that the battery contacts on the batteries and the TIC are free from corrosion. Also, be sure to check that the battery chargers are corrosion-free on all contacts.
Turn on and check your TIC weekly. This sounds easy, but some departments will go a couple of weeks without using their TIC.
- Check focus. Focal distance for most TICs is approximately three feet to infinity. If an object that is 10 to 15 feet away appears blurry, then you might need to adjust the focus. This is rare, but it can happen.
- Check clarity. Look for any noise in the image. Noise looks like background static. It’s typically fixed and does not change location as the TIC moves.
- Check temperature measurement. Does the color activate as expected? Does the TIC shift from high gain to low gain appropriately? Test temperature measurement by pointing your TIC at a gas stove or grill.
- Check other features or attached accessories.
Your TIC is exposed to the harshest environments from water to frequent drops, which can result in gaskets or screws coming loose. Soot, carbon, and dirt commonly build up on the TIC, its display cover, and its lens or lens window, which can impact performance. Spending a little time each week maintaining your TIC will ensure that it stays operational and productive. Check with your TIC’s manufacturer for specific recommendations for maintaining your camera. Your TIC is a lifesaving tool that needs to function properly when called on.
Carl Nix is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and a retired battalion chief of the Grapevine (TX) Fire Department. He serves as an adjunct instructor for North Central Texas College and a thermal imaging instructor for Bullard. Nix has a bachelor of science degree in fire administration and is a guest instructor for Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s (TEEX) annual fire training in Texas.