Industrial Fire Journal - Fire & Rescue - Hemming Group Ltd
Sensing the heat airside
Published:  10 June, 2009

Thermal imaging cameras are increasingly finding their way into airport firefighting brigades where their applications are numerous, as Biggin Hill found out.


“An airport cannot function without a fire service, and a fire service cannot function without at least one thermal imaging camera,” says Paul Spooner, Product Manager for Thermal Imaging Camera Manufacturer e2v, based in Chelmsford in the UK. Spooner has over 20 years of experience in the thermal imaging industry, and he explains that a growing number of airport fire brigades are cottoning on to the fact that thermal imaging camera’s (TICs) can substantially increase the efficiency of their response and enhance training and exercises.

According to Spooner, most airport fire services have personnel who have had previous experience from local authority or the armed forces. “People who have moved from local authority and military areas may have brought the thermal imaging technology with them into the ARFF arena. Traditionally, some major airports in the UK used to own some of our Argus 1 TICs. However, it wasn’t until we launched the Argus 2 around the year 2000, that airports here began to view TICs as an essential piece of kit,” explains Spooner.

In order to understand the ARFF market better, e2v approached Mick O’Brien, Training officer for London Biggin Hill Airport rescue and firefighting service based in Greater London, UK.

London Biggin Hill is a small executive airport, published as CAA category 3 with a prenote to category 6. This means that London Biggin Hill can receive a variety of craft ranging up to a 737.

The airport did not own a TIC in the past, but in recent months the department has had several Argus 4 TICs on trial. O’Brien explains that using these TICs has proved highly valuable for the airport fire service. “We never had technology on hand like the Argus 4 before, and we had to make up for that in other ways. We have explored the use of these cameras for several months now, and the Argus 4 technology impressed us during the trial.”

After the trial, O’Brien organised a day at London Biggin Hill Airport to demonstrate to e2v the types of uses found for the camera. He set up six scenarios in which he demonstrated how a TIC could be used for ARFF purposes, which were then recorded on video by e2v. (These videos are now available on the e2v website.)

The first and most common use for the TIC is to see whether overheated undercarriages and brakes have cooled down sufficiently. Where before a firefighter actually had to go physically near to the plane`s undercarriage to determine the situation, now one glance through the TIC will make clear if the temperature has decreased sufficiently for the plane to safely to continue its operation.

The second scenario that O’ Brien demonstrated entailed the use of a TIC for internal fires in an aircraft, where the fire service has to find live volunteers in dense smoke. “We filled up our 737 simulator with artificial smoke to zero visibility. The TIC made it possible to carry out a comprehensive visual search inside the aircraft, and even the seat numbers came up clearly on the camera, which is of great use when trying to identify victims. We were astounded as to how clear it was using the TIC. We could see all the live volunteers in their seats within seconds of entering the aircraft. Most useful to learn was that in order to create survival conditions the plane needed to be ventilated very quickly, using the camera we had the advantage of seeing the emergency exit through the dense smoke. Previously we had to use our knowledge and experience to locate the emergency exits,” comments O’Brien.

Fires in the auxiliary power unit (APU) are another problem in aircraft, a separates engine in the tail of the plane that powers the main engine on start up. Sometimes this unit overheats which can result in a fire. The TIC, however, enables firefighters to check the APU from a distance, so nobody has to go into the risk area near the tail to check if there is a fire.

Because Biggin Hill is surrounded by a wooded area, if an aircraft were to crash in the undergrowth around the airport boundary at night, it would be hard to spot survivors until London Fire Brigade had arrived on scene with the appropriate equipment. The new Argus 4, however, enables the AFS to continue the rescue operations. “This would save valuable time, something which would have never been possible for us, because we are such a small regional airport, and cannot typically afford this type of equipment. Now we have got the thermal imager, we wished we had had it years before. We exchanged many ideas with e2v on how to use this instrument, and they were very attentive to our suggestions.

“In another scenario we used the TIC for spotting a fire in the avionics section, the electronics placed in the belly of the aircraft where it services the cockpit. Normally it is extremely hard to find your way through the electronics and locate the seat of the fire. The TIC enabled us to see exactly where the problem was and we were able to observe a noticeable increase in temperature.”

The same applies to cockpit fires where a large amount of electronics makes it very difficult to determine the exact location of the fire. O’Brien once responded to an incident where they suspected the fire was situated in the cabin area, but after much searching it turned out to be in the rear toilet area. He reckons his team could have found this out in less than half the time if he could have used a TIC.

However, it is not just for fighting fire in the aircraft where the thermal imager has its uses. Most airports now also have their own aircraft fuel storage tanks, and London Biggin Hill is no exception. O’Brien explains that during training scenarios he has installed an artificial smoke machine on top of these storage tanks. When you normally fight these fires, due to high level of smoke from the burning fuel, you are not sure if you are hitting the correct critical area. The TIC, however, enables you to find the critical area immediately so this can be communicated to firefighting crews.

Another situation where the camera has proven of great use is during hangar fires. The team uses a map to determine where all the hazardous materials are located in each hangar. TIC are now used to find out where the fire is and to calculate the risk in relation to the location of the hazardous materials.

O’Brien is enthusiastic about his new TIC, and feels he is discovering new uses for it all the time. “It is a very good product, and we will definitely use it on a regular basis. From the feedback we had from our colleagues while training at IFTC Teesside, we noticed that most airport fire brigades are now using TICs or are in the process of buying them. We noticed especially that more people are starting to use them for training purposes. Tactics and techniques change over the years, and these instruments help us save time and resources during the rescue and firefighting operation. In my opinion these cameras definitely help save lives and property.”

Spooner agrees with O’Brien in that these instruments help put out fires effectively and properly. “The real key advantage of a TIC is that it works day and night and it can be used anywhere within the airport boundaries. As a company we learned a lot from the London Biggin Hill firefighters and the next step for us is to look into developing a way of transmitting the images from the camera via a secure transmitter to someone outside the fire situation. “Traditionally, we have delivered cameras to municipal fire departments, Coast Guard and Navy, but it is obvious to us that the airport fire industry can benefit greatly from the use of TICs,” concludes Spooner.