It is no secret to firefighters that smoke is borderline impossible to navigate on its own.
Even the artificial smoke generated from machines during training obscures nearly all useful vision, and that’s nothing compared to the black carpets of smoke that come with any type of structure fire and only adds to the chaos.
Starting last week, San Marino Fire Department’s ambulances and firetrucks now carry the latest in heat detection and navigation technology to assist. The small neon thermal imagers replace the clunkier ones of the past at a significant price premium.
“It’s a really valuable tool,” said Fire Capt. Nick Maza during a demonstration of the new equipment. “They were around $4,000-$4,200 each, which is a really good deal for a thermal imager.”
The imagers help firefighters in a variety of ways, primarily by indicating surface temperature of anything in its line of sight. This gives firefighters a better idea of which rooms to avoid and also helps identify where victims are located.
The tools can’t see through walls, but the surface temperature of a wall, depending on the material, could indicate whether the temperature on the other side has the potential to flash. An imager can also help determine which tools or equipment are necessary to navigate an area.
“When they start getting too hot, I know I’ve got to get people out,” Maza said.
One thing the imagers can cut through is smoke, which proves vital as firefighters run hose into a structure and also rescue anyone trapped inside. The imagers essentially serve as their eyes, for conventional flashlights are useless in smoke.
Generally, the captain of the crew will be in charge of handling the imager and coordinating the support personnel.
“It gets in your way rescuing people or climbing ladders,” Maza said while discussing the older models’ shortcomings. “The captain is going to be responsible for the imagers because we’re ultimately responsible for the safety of the crew.”
The benefit of the ambulance crew also carrying the imager is that they can start attacking the blaze if they arrive first.
“If they’re not needed to assist [in fire control],” Maza explained, “they start on the salvage operations.”
For this task, the fire department now carries a collection of vinyl salvage covers (three on each engine) and vinyl hall runners (two on each engine). The hall runners unfold to cover hallways and staircases to prevent further damage as firefighters work and the salvage covers allow crews to pile valuables into one area to protect them from smoke and water damage.
“We just had a fire in South Pasadena where we got everything done with the salvage operation in conjunction with everything else,” Maza explained, highlighting the efficiency of how fire crews operate.
The salvage covers can also be folded and rolled to serve as catches for stray sources of water, such as sprinklers or rogue water pipes. While the catches collect up to 300 gallons of water, crews can identify how to stop that water flow while knowing the home isn’t being damaged further by water.
“We’re working to not damage the house any more than it already is,” Maza said.
SMFD Chief Mario Rueda spoke on the department’s increased focus on salvaging valuables in homes.
“We tend to focus on putting the fire out, but at the end, the people are worried about their grand piano or their photo albums or their family pictures,” Rueda said. “It’s something we practice.”