By Kevin Canessa
Here’s a scenario we’ve all probably faced at one point or another. You come home late — walk into a room — and it’s pitch black. You can’t find the light switch. Eventually, lights turn on and all is well.
Yet for firefighters across the globe, walking into a pitch-black room is an all-too-regular occurrence … but there’s a huge difference about what they face: most of the time, they can’t turn a light on. Further, they have no choice but to continue to enter such a dark room. They have to use their senses to search for possible victims. In such conditions, it’s very possible they could walk — or even crawl — right past potential victims without noticing.
But thanks to a grant secured by Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Kauffmann, such a scenario might never happen again because, as of Friday, April 27, every active KFD fire rig has been outfitted with the most advanced thermal-imaging camera on the market.
Getting there was hardly a quick process — but it was one that was worth the wait, according to Kauffmann.
The deputy chief, along with FEMA’s Brain Thomas, regional fire program specialist for FEMA Region 2, sat down with The Observer just hours before the new cameras were placed on the rigs to explain their importance.
Some background first.
The KFD has had thermal-imaging cameras before. Some were from 2001, others from 2007. They’re ancient, really, and couldn’t be fixed anymore. Enter Kauffmann, the department’s grant writer. He and Chief Steven Dyl recognized the need for upgrades — and thus, Kauffmann and an ad-hoc committee began searching for ways to get the cameras via grants.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” Kauffmann said. “We want to stay up to date and outfit the firefighters with the best technology possible. Thermal imagers were high on the list of what we needed. (The old cameras) were so beat up over time that they weren’t even operational as they should.”
Aside from the obvious, Kauffmann noted that the department has gone through some of the most rigorous hiring it has in 30+ years. The department is young. What young firefighters lack in know-how, they can make up for that through use of high-tech devices like thermal-imagers.
“Newer firefighters, you want to give them the best tools possible to be successful,” Kauffmann said. “Where they’re lacking in experience we want to give them the tools needed — and we were lacking there. This was another big part in the process, as well.”
So after a lengthy process that began well over a year ago, FEMA awarded the KFD a grant in early September 2017. Kauffmann and his committee then kicked into gear, contacted vendors and narrowed their choices via field testing. There are only six cameras on the market that are considered compliant with National Fire Protection Association standards.
Once the committee made their selection, the department bought Scott NFPA cameras (nine in total), trained those who would use them (mostly captains) and now they’re a reality.
The cameras will, of course, be used in fires. But they’ll also be used for other purposes, including at vehicle accidents.
“We don’t know if a person was thrown from a vehicle so (now) we’ll do a thermal scan of the area,” Kauffmann said. “It’ll be an immediate 360 of that accident scene because we see if there’s a victim we have no idea could have been part of this accident. We’re going to pick them up on the camera.”
The cameras will detect body heat. While some of the imaging is grey, colors will also be used when temperatures are higher. They’ll also be used when temps are colder, too, like in a gas leak or a chemical spill.
How did the KFD get here?
According to FEMA’s Thomas, each year, notice of funding opportunities goes out, nationwide. Departments then create applications. Once they’re received in Washington, D.C., they go through a computer pre-scale (there’s an algorithm involved) that decides which applications move on.
Kearny’s application passed the computer pre-screening.
The first round of accepted applications then go peer-panel review, where a committee of firefighter volunteers read through the applications in the D.C. area, and decide, subjectively, which ones move ahead. Once peers score the applications — just as a teacher would score an exam — they’re moved on to a government professional like Thomas if they meet a certain grade (they’re scored on a 0 to 100 scale, but the criteria remain a well-kept FEMA secret.)
The KFD’s application scored well — and thus, it was awarded $65,000 to buy the cameras. The town, meanwhile, contributed a match of about $7,000 (10% of the overall cost) to make up the difference.
“What I like to hear is departments that would have had no way possible to get the equipment without the grant money,” Thomas said. “Some departments are strapped for cash — and they just don’t have that money coming in. And, were it not for an award from us, they’d be going in blind. When you’re a first responder, every second counts. I’m no hero, but it’s good for us to be able to provide the equipment to the heroes who are out there.”
Kauffmann arranged for a demonstration of how effective the cameras are. At the KFD’s Midland Avenue headquarters, we all assembled in a completely dark room. Without lights, it was impossible to notice a mock victim lying on the floor behind a couch. Without the cameras, it might have been impossible for two firefighters to have found the victim.
But the second the cameras were turned on, first responders could tell there was a fallen victim behind the couch. To say the cameras will make a difference is a major understatement.
And they may very well be responsible for saving lives.
Learn more about the writer ...
Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.