Are just plain convenient

Thermal imaging cameras: Save lives and livelihoods

Mon, 05/02/2016 - 10:00am

    OWLS HEAD — Recently, authorities searched for a suicidal man on the grounds of Owls Head Lighthouse. Responders tracked him, not by natural sight or scent-following dogs, but by a piece of equipment — the thermal imaging camera, an increasingly present item in the storage compartments of local fire trucks. 

    Turn the camera on, aim in the desired direction, and look through the screen. On the screen, warm objects appear gray. Cold objects remain black. And, as an eerie new example of carbon footprinting, the camera can even pick up the residual heat from a person’s walking path seconds prior.

    Owls Head Fire Department received its first thermal camera five years ago from an anonymous donor. At the time, the technology was new and came with a retail selling price of $13,000.

    To the firefighters, this thermal imaging camera is a vital piece of equipment. In the past five years they’ve used it to find wandering persons, to determine burning buildings as vacant sooner, and to maintain walls that otherwise would have been hacked as responders searched for hot spots.

    The camera, originally developed for military use, has also been used to find a ferret hidden behind a wall, at the request of a homeowner.

    According to Chief Frank Ross, the sheriff’s office once requested the camera in a search for a gun.

    Since then, the technology has advanced. The physical components are easier to manipulate, and the price has dropped to $4,900, making the camera a worthwhile fundraising focus for a group of residents wanting to honor their first responders.

    The group will hold a fundraiser baked potato bar supper at the Owls Head Community Center Saturday, May 7, 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The potato bar will include 16 to 18 fresh toppings including homemade chili. A salad bar and a sundae bar will also be on hand.

    “We’re hoping nobody leaves hungry,” said Assistant Fire Chief John Gamage, who also works as a dispatcher for Knox County Communications Center.

    The event will also feature raffles, silent auctions, and the opportunity to meet the crew, view a fire truck and analyze rescue equipment. 

    The Flexible Scene Enhancement imaging model, desired by Owls Head, provides “an ultra-sharp, finer textured image that shows subtler details, allowing the firefighter to recognize objects, pathways, and others more easily, which, in turn, helps expedite better decisions when seconds count,” according to the product website.

    The newer camera allows for recording of the images on the screen. It is also lighter in weight, a constant concern of firefighters whose uniforms already weigh 70 pounds; Helmets alone weigh 12 pounds.

    The current camera requires two hands to operate, which is hard to maneuver when crawling on the floor, and buttons that are hard to press while wearing fire gloves.

    Because of this, because of increased technology of newer models, such as the one Rockland uses, and because Rockland responds to Owls Head emergencies as mutual aid, Rockland’s camera is always preferred. When Rockland isn’t available, Owls Head turns back to their camera.

    Owls Head Fire Department is entirely volunteer-based. Twenty-seven volunteers make up the crew, including two college students. Some are snow birds, some are currently inactive for one reason or another. When a call comes in, all must abandon their everyday lives. Chief Ross leaves his general contractor assignments. Gamage comes from the dispatch center. Lobstermen abandon the traps they’re hauling.

    All for a small community of about 1,700 people responsible for passengers of the local airport, for visitors of the Owls Head Transportation Museum, for forested areas and marine activity, and for year-round and seasonal residents. 

    “I’m a 911 dispatcher when I’m not doing this stuff, and I get call backs all the time from people. What’s taking so long? When in fact it’s been two minutes. But in their world, that is a long time. I understand it,” Gamage said.

    The newer camera, at least, will cut down on the on-scene time.

    The fire department is planning for more recruitment events (not all positions require entering a burning structure) and fundraisers to generate money for lighter uniforms and to repair a computer malfunction of an accessory attached to one of the trucks.

    Sarah Thompson can be reached at