By Rich Harbert
PLYMOUTH, Mass. — A blinking green light could mean the difference between life and death the next time fire targets a house in town.
The lights are located on the side of the new masks firefighters began wearing on the job earlier this month. With funding approved by Town Meeting last year, Plymouth is the first town in the state to outfit all of its firefighters with the thermal imaging technology.
The cameras, made by Scott Safety and known as Scott Sight, attach to Scott Air-Pak masks and give firefighters the ability to locate people as well as hot spots in complete darkness or the densest smoke. Firefighters can also get an instant temperature reading simply by focusing on an object.
Fire Chief Ed BradIey said the technology will make working in dangerous conditions much safer for his firefighters, who will be able to spot one another as well as residents and sources of fire and heat. "The safety this brings is unbelievable. And if my people are safe, the public is safer too," Bradley said.
The department had previously used bulky, hand-held thermal imaging cameras to look for hot spots and peer though smoke.
The technology has come a long way.
When the cameras first became available in the late 1990s, the community raised money to purchase the $25,000 cameras. Residents may remember the wooden display featuring a firefighter climbing a ladder outside fire headquarters that tracked donations to place one of the 12-pound cameras in every fire station in town.
The Scott Sight camera system weighs about 8.5 ounces and includes a small viewing screen inside the face mask that firefighters can monitor by glancing down. Bradley likens it to looking through reading glasses in a pair of bifocals.
The cameras are sensitive enough to detect the heat signature of a footprint and can record the temperature of any surface. By glancing at two containers, for instance, a firefighter can see that the contents of one is dangerously increasing. The cameras can detect hot spots behind walls. Cold spots suggest a person.
Scott is working on a mask upgrade that will analyze gas levels in any environment as well.
The department paid nearly $1,300 each for cameras for each of the department's 123 firefighters.
The department outfitted its firefighters with individual masks in 2009. Before then, firefighters from different shifts shared masks assigned to trucks at each station.
The department upgraded its helmets and masks two years ago, moving to a more heat- and fire-resistant model.
Town Meeting approved $167,000 for the thermal imaging equipment last April.
Bradley called the cameras the future of firefighting, predicting that all departments will eventually outfit firefighters with the equipment.
Some other fire departments in the state currently equip its firefighters with the thermal imaging technology, but the cameras are shared from shift to shift. Plymouth is the first department in the state (and in many other states) to equip every firefighter with the equipment.
"We've come a long ways from the public donating to buy one," Bradley said.
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