Thermal imageThermal imaging technology has now been integrated with the iPhone. Whilst this is an early model unlikely to be of high enough resolution for emergency services/professional use, it marks a significant shift towards an era where thermal imaging cameras are part of our everyday hand held technology, as well as a steep drop in price of said technology. Rachel Hemsley of ISS reports.

Firefighters and other emergency services are well aware of the advantages thermal imaging cameras can offer. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have recognised from several investigations that the lack of a thermal imaging camera can often contribute to the injury or fatality of a firefighter. However it is often hard for emergency departments to afford such technology with price tags being in the thousands, let purchase alone multiple units. With this technology becoming cheaper, smaller and more readily available hopefully it will mean those in emergency services will be able to utilise it fully without the same budgetary limitations.

How we Currently Utilise Thermal Imaging in Emergency Situations
There are numerous ways in which thermal imaging technology has been utilised in emergency situations to help inform servicemen and women to perform their jobs more effectively:

  • It has proven particularly helpful in firefighting because smoke can impair vision and therefore gaining an accurate assessment of the situation can be challenging; thermal imaging provides another dimension to enable a clearer analysis of the scene. Thermal imaging can help firemen evaluate the structural integrity of a building, identify hotspots and find individuals still inside a fire, who may be passed out from smoke inhalation or trapped. 
  • Thermal imaging cameras are also very apt for search and rescue operations; when an individual is lost at sea thermal imaging can be greatly helpful. Some search and rescue boats already have thermal imaging cameras built in to find individuals lost at sea. For instance the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue have installed cameras on their entire fleet – thermal imaging is particularly useful in this region because certain parts of Norway are in darkness for months at a time and thermal imaging provides a visual representation without light. Also if someone goes missing in vast countryside helicopter’s equipped with a thermal imaging cameras can fly over the area to trying to find lost and possibly injured/incapacitated individuals. 
  • This technology has also been used at the scene of car accidents to assess how many passengers may have been thrown from the crash (by looking at the heat signatures on the seats). After an accident often timing from injury to treatment can be crucial and make the difference between life and death. If emergency workers know how many individuals to search for they can divide their efforts accordingly and hopefully find victims faster. Paramedics have even been known to use thermal imaging cameras to track down amputated limbs - if they’re still warm enough. 
  • The police force have found thermal imaging helpful for finding suspects – a thermal imaging camera aided police in finding the Boston bomber. Imagine if this technology were to be an everyday part of a police person’s arsenal it could be used to track and find any alleged criminal faster, under the right circumstances. When chasing a perpetrator that just left a crime scene, thermal imaging can be used to pick up foot prints if the heat signature is recent enough. 

Future Possibilities for this Technology
One great application has been created by engineers at the University of California, San Diego - they have incorporated thermal imaging into a scouting robot designed to aid fire fighters – the scouts are able to explore a dangerous landscape without the risk of human causality. This robot utilises both RGB and thermal images to piece together a 3D version of the landscape. It is also very agile with Segway like movement and the ability to climb stairs. Think how much more efficient firefighting could be with a more informed analysis of the situation – it could be particularly useful for assessing unpredictable fast spreading forest fires.

Whilst thermal imaging camera’s will not directly save lives, the intel they can provide at crucial moments in emergency situations can – thus the technology becoming more affordable and readily available is a positive step.

This article was written by Rachel Hemsley on behalf of ISS who specialised in thermal imaging cameras and electrical test equipment. For more in-depth features on thermal imaging, subscribe to FIRE at