By Kevin M. Smith
Killeen Daily Herald
In a smoke-filled room, Killeen Councilman Juan Rivera couldn't see much. But when he looked through a camera, everything was clear.
"There is so much smoke in there, you can't see to your right or left," said Rivera, describing a training exercise he participated in with the Killeen Fire Department.
He donned the equipment and went into a controlled structure fire used for training firefighters. After that experience, Rivera has vowed to not rest until every fire station in town has a thermal imaging camera.
"It's like day and night," said Killeen Fire Department Deputy Chief Kenneth Hawthorne.
Without the cameras, firefighters follow walls to guide themselves through smoke-filled structures.
"At some point, the smoke breaks and all you can see is fire," Hawthorne said.
The thermal imaging camera detects heat signatures and displays them on a screen.
"You can see various things in there – things that are hotter," Hawthorne said.
The camera can show images of people or fire. It can be viewed solely by the firefighter operating it or transmit the image to the command post.
"You're looking for people that may be in there," Hawthorne said.
He said it is easy to overlook a victim in a burning building if there is too much smoke, but the thermal imaging camera helps. He also said it can help find the source of smoke by detecting the heat in walls.
KFD currently has two thermal imaging cameras, one in the captain's vehicle and one at Fire Station No. 7 on Watercrest Drive. But Rivera said that's not enough.
"For me, it's not a matter of money," Rivera said.
He said if the device saves lives of firefighters and civilians, it is worth it.
"I believe no firefighter should go in without it," Rivera said.
He said firefighters need the device to rescue people and put out fires.
"When you send them in without the proper equipment, I've got a problem with that," Rivera said.
Rivera wants at least one camera per fire station. There are seven fire stations and there will be 10 within a couple of years.
The Harker Heights Fire Department has one thermal imaging camera and is purchasing a second one so it will have one for each of the two fire engines.
The Temple Fire Department has six thermal imaging cameras for its seven fire stations and wants more.
"We're currently trying to purchase them to have them on every unit," said Temple Deputy Fire Chief Scott Hoelscher.
He said the cameras have more uses than just fires. When rescue crews arrive at an accident involving passengers who were ejected from a vehicle, the camera can detect the heat signatures left by them. If there are three heat signatures on the vehicle seats, for example, and there are only two bodies found, then crews will know they need to search for more victims, Hoelscher said
"It's a tremendously useful tool," he said.
The Belton Fire Department has two cameras, one for each fire station.
Killeen City Manager Connie Green said buying the cameras will depend on the fire department's priorities. He said the fire department is already getting a lot this year with additional personnel, the building of two new fire stations, buying a new emergency rescue truck, buying an aerial platform truck and soon recommending a tanker truck among other purchases.
"We are trying to address the priorities and needs of the fire department," Green said.
He said he supports the cameras and Rivera's pledge, but the cameras will be addressed after other priorities are taken care of.
"As we can afford some of these things, we will take a look at them," Green said.
Hawthorne said the cameras rank 17th of 73 budget priorities. Originally quoted at $20,000, the cameras now cost between $12,000 and $17,000, depending on the model.
"That technology, as it progresses, the price actually goes down," Hawthorne said.
Contact Kevin M. Smith at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7550