FLIR Emergency System Model

One of my passions as a safety professional is utilizing Einstein’s thought experiment model to develop new theoretical practices. The following article is one I developed as a way to give a comprehensive view of a building during a fire. I did not really factor in cost or maintenance, because those are variables that would be worked out later on. The main focus is on utilizing FLIR technology to provide a command center with accurate real-time data. So, let’s jump right into it!

During an emergency fire evacuation of any building, there is always one thought on everyone’s mind, “Did everyone make it out alright?” In a small organization this may be easy to answer, however, what about a large high-rise occupancy building that houses a large company? There is a way to ensure that those questions are answered, and fire rescue teams are directed to survivors accurately. Utilizing existing technology, protected properties can become a beacon of fire prevention and employee rescue.

First, it is important to understand how current fire evacuations operate. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published guidelines on how to develop procedures and assist fire rescue teams (USDOL, n.d.). There must be clear reasons when to activate the fire alarm and when to evacuate; there must be a clear chain of command to order the evacuation; there must be specific evacuation routes and exits; most importantly, there must be a means of accountability when everyone gathers up at set areas of assembly (USDOL, n.d.). Arguably, the accountability may be one of the most crucial portions to any evacuation after an evacuation for a fire. Without an accurate head count, there is almost no way to know if anyone is still in the building. This becomes a major concern, not only for the employee, but also for the safety of the fire rescue crew when the building is a high rise. Is accounting for employees by a headcount or “roll-call” an accurate method? As a safety manager for a large organization I have had experience with fire evacuation drills, I have very strong feelings about this topic.

In 2015, a total of five full fire evacuation drills were conduction on the Medical Instruction Facility #4, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. This building housed a total of 800 students, 200 instructors, and 80 support members. All five times, the fire chief, the building safety manager, and my safety management team triggered the evacuation notification at random times (Muller, G., 2015). We had a goal of 10-minute complete evacuation times, which is a long time, due to the wide egresses and exits. However, a baseline had never been accomplished prior to my arrival to the position. In every drill we reduced the evacuation time by a few minutes, from the first time of 15 minutes to a final time of 7.45 minutes. The evacuation drills were still a complete failure, due to the lack of accurate accountability that we were able to achieve at the end.

All of the students were broken up by class and had a designated spot the evacuated to. Each class had their instructional team in charge of them take accountability. This was then reported up to us and then we compared it to the accountability of who was supposed to be in the building and that was ultimately compared to who the fire rescue teams found in their complete sweeps of the building. In every case, an average of 10% of the staff/students were unaccounted for without any explanation, and the sweeps found people that had been accounted for previously (Muller, G., 2015). To me, this shows the ability for human error in accountability and this could have ultimately ended in staff or students losing their lives if a fire had broken out. I may also have lost fire fighters who would have spent time looking for people that may or may not have been in the building if a fire had actually been present. Humans are capable of failure in decision-making, and the issues I noticed with accountability are proof of that. Of course this is still the mode of operation for most organizations in the event of an evacuation, and it has to be. Fire rescue team need this information, to whatever degree of uncertainty it is, it is a lengthy process though.

Accounting for employees, especially when they can total in the hundreds or thousands, can take time. When dealing with a high-rise building, this time may not be in the favor of anyone trapped in an area of the building approaching flashover. In most commercial areas, response times for fire rescue is well within 10-15 minutes (NFPA 1720, 2016), accounting for employees can take a lot longer than that. Even if an accurate number of missing employees were to be derived shortly, would there be an accurate location for them in the building? Where would the fire rescue team start? The employee may work in accounting, but what if they were delivering paperwork at the time and got caught in another floor? These questions and lack of answers may cost an employee their life.

I also have experience as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for over a decade. I have worked closely with fire rescue and have responded to fires in both residential and commercial districts. In both cases it is extremely important for both those caught in the building and the firefighters to know exactly where the survivor is located. As the building size grows, it becomes even more important due to the time it takes to get deeper into the building fighting against the clock of potential flashover killing the survivor. This alone can be one of the most difficult and lacking pieces of information in the whole situation.

The focus of fire prevention and protection becomes early detection and rapid evacuation. At the same time early protection devices flood the areas with water or water based solutions in an effort to reduce the chance of flashover. However, this still leaves the entire rescue force completely blind to any survivors that are trapped. Evacuation of the building relies on hoping that everyone makes it out, and if they don’t hoping that head counting will find out in time that there may be someone still inside (USDOL, n.d.). There just will not be any real idea where inside the building the employee may be. There is a technology that can activate in an emergency to view heat signatures and software to autonomously provide a report of where in the building an accurate count of how many there are. We use it all the time every day in manufacturing cars or in our home’s smoke detectors; it is infrared (IR) technology.

Infrared cameras are an amazing technology that has revolutionized many aspects of our daily lives. It has been used in many home applications for smoke detection devices and some commercial ones. The infrared detection devices generally have fewer false alarms than their counterparts. However, these devices are only used for the detection of smoke particles in the air. Another amazing ability of the infrared wavelength is the ability to view and register heat signatures (FLIR Heat Signatures, 2016).

Registering heat signatures is a staple concept used by fire rescue teams to verify hot spots in buildings. IR technology is utilized by the U.S. military as well in a wide array of applications. An excellent example is the field training sites at Hurlburt Field, Florida where Combat Airmen are viewed through Front Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras to view their progress. Law enforcement officials have also seen great success in utilizing FLIR technology (For Your Mission, 2016). Suspects who have run from officers cannot conceal their heat signatures from the camera no matter what they try; the suspects will always be a few degrees above their environment.

FLIR technology has also found its way into automaton processes for quality control. This requires software to read heat signatures and ensure they are within tight specifications (Thermal Imaging, 2016). FLIR technology is also used in fire prevention for many industrial processes. The cameras and software can determine when areas are heating to unsafe temperatures and alert staff (Thermal Imaging, 2016). The software can be programmed to determine signatures within very tight specifications and accurately prevent issues.

IR heat signatures are not a new concept in fire rescue. Many firefighter teams will carry handheld FLIR cameras as they penetrate the buildings they are looking for survivors in (For Your Mission, 2016). However, this is only useful if they are within a room or two of the victim and they do not necessarily have any advanced warning of where the survivor is before they find them. This same FLIR camera can be utilized to detect rooms that have reached flashover or are near that point prior to opening doors or accessing them through breaking a hole in the wall. Again, this is only useful within a room or two away from the area being evaluated by the FLIR camera. While this does give the firefighters distance from hazards, it does not give much advanced warning to survivor locations or potential flashover.

Relying on hoping all employees can make it out in time and on head counts for accuracy sounds less than progressive in our technology saturated world. We have search engines that can deliver answers to problems in millionths of a second, yet we rely on hugely imperfect methods to ensure accountability of human lives. Why not incorporate the technology that can detect imperfections on an assembly line to a micrometer into our fire alert systems? The technology is there, the business models are in use for other proprietary systems, and the potential for fires is ever prevalent.

First, the reasons for integrating FLIR cameras into the current alarm systems are very straightforward. Registering heat signatures during an active evacuation gives a lot of important information to responders and to the on-scene commander. This information would tell them how many people are currently still in the building, and more importantly exactly where. This can also be used to give information of rising heat levels in a real-time manner to the fire chief, allowing them to make much more informed decisions in regards to rescue attempts. How this information is delivered from the cameras can be scaled depending on price point, a print out of location-heat signature, or a real time video feed. The business plan would have to break this down in more detail, but I believe a hybrid system would probably work best for most buildings; lower temperatures would receive simple printouts on screen, while higher ones receive video feeds. There would be options to override this if the need arose. These servers would be remotely based or in a fire rated enclosure to ensure maximum time. The servers would be able to be accessed remotely through a secure cloud based platform to ensure the on-scene commander can access the information as needed from their position. This is a proven concept, an example is SafetyCloud, a cloud based auditing platform for safety professionals (SafetyCulture, n.d.). This allows audits to be accessed anywhere on the planet and it has proven to be an invaluable tool to many agencies. This is not the only example either; many home and commercial security companies offer remote access to the video monitors installed in a protected property. These are secure and offer a platform that can easily be integrated into many other areas of safety and security.

The issue of accurately deciding if a certain heat signature is actually a human or not is a valid concern. For this question it is important to remember that FLIR technology has been utilized with tremendous success in manufacturing on autonomous lines to detect imperfections. This combines the camera and software to create a highly accurate quality assurance process Thermal Imaging, 2016). This same concept is just as applicable to humans. All of us are around 98 degrees Fahrenheit (give or take a degree or two), this is much higher than our surroundings at any given time (Limmer, O’Keefe, & Dickinson, 2012), and even in a hot server room our heat signature will have a distinct shape. Software can easily be developed to “count” our signature.

This does bring up the question “what about in the event of an actual fire? Won’t our heat signatures be masked by the heat?” It is important to remember that unless it is an explosion, the flames will not immediately engulf the room. This gives a FLIR camera time to count heat signatures prior to flashover, give a report of how many are in a room, and then as it is engulfed in flames, the fire chief can see in real time how many people were trapped in that room. Or hopefully, see the number of heat signatures rise in another room, which would indicate they were able to escape the engulfed room. Meaning the fire chief does not have to order a dangerous rescue in an unwarranted situation, something he would not have known without a FLIR fire alarm system.

The cameras would also work with the existing visual and auditory alarm system that is already in place. This is not meant to be a replacement to those mandatory systems. FLIR cameras are merely meant to be an add-on to better assist protected property owners and fire rescue operations in the event of a real world disaster. They can be installed without interrupting any of the existing alarm systems.

In today’s world privacy is also a major concern, and this type of system may be seen as an infringement on that. This is completely valid, as a FLIR camera should be mounted in every occupied room within the building. The system will only activate during an alarm, and at no other time will anyone in the organizational chain be allowed to override this feature. There would not be any benefit from activating this from a security standpoint; this system will not double as a surveillance system. Only the local fire chief and the system owner will have an override ability. To ensure compliance with laws and privacy concerns a legal and security consultant will be engaged prior to implementation.

An obvious concern with implementing FLIR into a fire alarm system is the cost. This paper is not a full business plan, so a cost analysis will not be performed. However, it suffices to say the price is rather high. The initial cost can be offset through lock-in contracts for service through a company that offers complete installation and maintenance. This type of business model is usually seen in most companies that offer equipment for long-term contracts; an example is ADT or Vivint home security systems. A complete cost analysis would reveal in better depth of how to better offer the equipment and services to customers. While the initial cost is high, the benefits in high-risk areas greatly outweigh the negative. Think of an organization that hires a majority of disabled members, or an organization that has volatile chemicals prone to fires, or an area with winding egresses, or multilevel egresses. While FLIR alarms may not be suitable for all buildings, it has benefits for high-risk organizations, and the high cost is secondary.

To summarize, FLIR technology has changed safety and automaton in recent years. It is used in hand held cameras by safety professionals, military instructors, and firefighters to perform their jobs. This same technology can be used to eliminate the guesswork that accompanies the chaos of a building evacuation during a fire. Counting employees, trying to guess where they are in the building, and hoping everyone made it out is too many variables when it comes to human lives. With FLIR cameras in occupied areas that activate during a fire alarm scenario, heat signatures can be counted and accurate locations can be relayed to the on-scene commander. The precision and accuracy allows fire rescue teams to efficiently locate and retrieve survivors.

In conclusion, existing technology can be adapted to greatly increase the efficiency and accuracy of fire rescue and recovery in large-scale operations. FLIR is an expensive addition to an organizations fire protection measures, however the benefits outweigh the initial costs. Accurate location and counts for trapped victims is invaluable information for firefighter teams when planning rescue attempts. The technology also provides information on overall heat levels in the rooms to firefighting teams, allowing more real-time data on cooling operations.  Front Looking Infrared Technology integrated into existing fire alarm systems will ensure that a building is on the cutting edge of fire protection for its occupants and local firefighters.



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