See the heat: Thermal imaging cameras help Kyle Fire Dept.

By Kim Hilsenbeck

Standing inside a cinder block building in Wimberley, the temperature was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Within minutes, it rose to more than 600 degrees as bales of hay caught fire.

The controlled demo burn, ignited by officers in the Kyle Fire Department, was part of Thursday morning’s live fire training at the Wimberley Fire Field, which included the use of thermal imaging cameras.

According to Kyle Fire Chief Kyle Taylor, the demo burn was mostly for the benefit of new recruits and volunteers to the department.

About half a dozen firefighters, along with this reporter, donned full turn out gear and SCBA units (an air pack with an oxygen tank). To prevent unwanted danger, firefighters check each other’s gear before entering a fire. They graciously took the time to help this reporter suit up, tuck hair under a hood and get locked in to the breathing apparatus – an ordeal to be sure. But they remained professional and helpful through the entire process.

They even helped remind the newbies that once a breathing apparatus is activated, an alarm goes off every 30 seconds when there is no movement. A quick look around showed many firefighters doing what appeared to be a little dance.

“You basically have to do a little twerk to make the alarm shut off,” the lieutenant said. 

He demonstrated a little hip movement. Imagine twerking with firefighters — it makes for quite the comic relief.

But the overall mood was not playful; these guys (and one female firefighter) take the job seriously.

All participants at the training had to walk through the building before any fires started. Taylor said that National Fire Protection Agency rules mandate that firefighters conduct a walk through prior to training. Apparently deaths occurred in trainings where firefighters were not familiar with the layout of the structure.

Once everyone was suited up and safe, the group lined up and put a hand on the shoulder of the person ahead then headed into the cinder block house for the demo. Everyone then took a knee as the lead staff explained what was about to happen.

A minute later, a firefighter came in with a blowtorch to set the hay on fire. It crackled and popped as the fire spread upward.

As flames started to lick the ceiling, and heat and smoke enveloped the room, the thermal imaging camera flickered with color. The cameras pick up heat and are used by fire departments across the country. But their hefty price – about $9,000 each – can be cost prohibitive for smaller departments.

Kyle Fire Department applied for a grant from Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Customer donations from stores like the Firehouse Subs in Kyle, owned by franchisees Karen and Gary White, are pooled together through the foundation. Grants are then awarded to public safety agencies around the country.

Chief Kyle Taylor learned a few months ago his department would receive two new thermal imaging cameras with the Firehouse Subs grant money. Those devices aid firefighters, already hampered visually by thick black smoke and a face shield, in finding people and even animals trapped in burning buildings. The cameras detect heat, allowing firefighters to locate people and animals even when they can’t see a hand in front of their face with the naked eye.

“It’s just a great feeling to be part of the community and part of something like this,” Gary White said during a dedication ceremony for the cameras in late January.

The cameras also show the temperature of the heat source. In the case of Thursday’s demo fire, it registered between 600 and 650 degrees for most of the time in that room. It was hot enough to slightly melt the top of the face masks of at least two individuals’ helmets.

Following the demo, firefighters then got down to the business of live fire training. In the first round, Lt. Alex Barrera took the role of incident commander under Taylor’s supervision.

While Barrera was free to attack the structure fire as he thought best, Taylor wanted the entire group to focus on communication.

“I want to hear when you walk into the building how many people you have and when you come out how many you have,” he told the group. “We need to work on our command and communication.”

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