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Equipment
THE HIGHEST STANDARD

Seeing effectiveness of infared tool by neighbour at a mutual aid call, one Alberta department has added it to it’s toolbox.

December 7, 2007
By KATIE BAILEY

21Standard is a quiet, picturesque Alberta village located about an hour's drive outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Calgary. Its 400 residents support 10 local businesses and a thriving agricultural community. It's an ideal setting for those looking for a quieter life.

But like anywhere else, Standard has its share of emergencies. When the calls come in, the Standard Fire Department is quick to the scene, delivering fire fighting expertise and first aid response.

The Standard Fire Department has served the community and surrounding area for 50 years. For a small, all-volunteer department – 24 people in total – they have a wealth of responsibility. Their jurisdiction covers 200 square miles, about 800 people and includes two major industrial facilities, the Husky Oil Plant and Agrium Liquid Fertilizers. Their territory includes swaths of rural landscape, where fires can quickly rage out of control and response times are critical. They have support agreements with nearby fire departments, in which one department will help out the other when needed, but Standard Fire Department is most often the first to respond in their area.

They are responsible for the safety of their officers, the rescue of the structures' inhabitants, controlling the scene and saving the property if possible. The department has a modest budget for this burden of responsibility and, with an expensive six-figure purchase of a pump truck on the horizon, is always on the lookout for tools or equipment that make a big difference in a small package.

Chief Andy Schulthess and his team discovered such a tool in September 2005 while responding to a structure fire call. A passer-by had notified authorities after seeing smoke coming out of an unoccupied house located nine miles out of town. Schulthess and his crew raced to the scene and quickly got the fire under control. During this time, a neighbouring fire department arrived to help fight the fire, bringing with them an infrared, or IR, thermometer.

An IR thermometer is a device that measures temperature by detecting the levels of infrared energy emitted from an object. Infrared energy cannot be seen with the naked eye; it is electro magnetic energy generated below the visible spectrum. Very hot objects emit visible light (think red-hot burning embers or orange and yellow flames). An IR thermometer can "see", or measure, infrared energy at levels that are too low to produce visible light and this lets fire fighters know where hidden heat is being generated. The thermometer can operate from a distance allowing the user to be a safe distance away from the object being tested. A laser pointer can indicate the center of the area being measured. The non-contact aspect makes it especially practical in firefighting because of the dangers of the extreme temperatures involved.

The neighbouring fire fighters who came to the house fire used the IR thermometer during salvage. The entire structure is inspected for hot spots. This often involves breaking holes in ceilings and walls, to check for smouldering fires. The thermometer allowed the fire fighters to pinpoint hot spots without destroying parts of the structure. According to Schulthess, the insurance company that later inspected the building couldn't believe the structure's integrity had been saved. 

"The IR thermometer allowed us to find some hot spots that we likely wouldn't have been able to find on our own, up in the ceilings, in the walls and so on," Schulthess said. "That's why the product was so useful to us. Otherwise we'd have to do a lot of damage just to tear walls apart to see if we could find a hot spot that may or may not be there."

After that first experience, Schulthess and his team were so impressed with the tool they immediately began investigating ways to obtain one for their department.

The many uses of an IR thermometer were readily apparent. It's the kind of tool that provides maximum value to a small department like the one in Standard. First, it contributes to the safety of the team. An IR thermometer can measure the heat of a room through a door or wall, even from outside the building. This lets fire fighters know the severity of a fire, or potential for fire, inside the structure. It can also help prevent backdraft, the phenomenon in which the sudden introduction of oxygen into a room, like the opening of a door or window, causes an explosion. If a fire fighter knows how hot the building is before entering, he or she can avoid the potential harm caused by an explosion.  

Insurance compensation is another major issue. Schulthess said events of recent years – natural disasters, floods, etc. – have created an environment in which insurance companies are reluctant to pay for damage that occurs as a result of a fire department's actions. Finding those hot spots without knocking great holes in walls and ceilings satisfies both insurance companies and homeowners.

"Boy, I'll tell ya," Schulthess said, "people are happy if you can save something that they've worked hard to build or purchase."

The Standard Fire Department is hoping to have the IR thermometer in their possession sometime this year. The men and women of the department have been hounding Schulthess and five-year member Scott Jensen for months.

"I've been going on and on about the thermometer," Jensen said with a laugh. "They're excited about this thing!"

The department will use the thermometer in training as well as in practice. It will be especially useful for tracking the progress of a fire in their "burn building" exercises in which the volunteers practise their skills in the controlled burning of a room or building.

The non-contact IR thermometer the department has applied for is the Fluke 574NI, a device made specifically for the rigours and harsh environments of fire fighting. The 574 can measure and store data, allowing trainers and trainees to create a record of events during a fire. It also has a visible and audible alarm to notify the user of dangerously high temperatures.

"We've looked at this particular model and it will allow us to see the differences in temperature from quite far back," explained Schulthess. "Some of the cheaper ones do not allow you to do that, you have to be within five or 10 feet."