Out with the old, and in with the new technologically advanced handheld thermal-imaging cameras.
The fire department says they are receiving seven new cameras to replace their two current ones, which they bought a decade ago and have degraded over time. Only one of the cameras has been in use for the past year.
Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge said the department has struggled to find financing for the equipment, which measures body heat and helps firefighters locate victims in spite of heavy smoke or dim light conditions.
CCFR was passed over several years in a row as the department tried to procure funding at the federal level through FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which has dedicated funding to firefighters since 9/11.
“They prioritize the grants, and we have to compete for them,” Etheridge said, noting there are a lot of needy departments out there. “You have other departments that are just trying to get basic bunker gear, so they place that over the needs for the cameras.”
This past year, though, CCFR approached the state Legislature for the first time to help them find the money, and Etheridge said the Legislature came through and helped them obtain a grant through the state’s capital improvement funds. According to city documents, the grant is for $45,800 and is from the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Since CCFR is a city department, the grant had to go through the city public process and get approval from the Assembly. The city manager recommended Assembly members pass the ordinance, and the Assembly did so on Monday night without objection.
The cameras cost about $5,000 a piece, much less than they used to be, Etheridge recalled.
“The original cameras we got a little over 10 years ago, and back then they were almost $30,000 a piece,” he said.
The new cameras will be about half the size of the current ones, which look like a clunky video camera or an oversized radar gun that police use to catch speeders. The size reduction means that firefighters will be able to clip the cameras to their gear and wear it around their necks as they are responding to fires, rather than having to grip it in their hands.
One new camera will go to each of the five CCFR stations in town, plus the two reserve engines. Etheridge said that solves the “delay” problem — currently, someone has to run the one working camera to where ever the fire is.
“So if you’re out in the Lynn Canal district, you don’t have to wait for the camera to come from downtown, those initial firefighters can use it,” he said.
Firefighters use the camera at every fire they respond to in Juneau, Etheridge said. People show up on the camera’s lens as a bright white silhouette, almost how bones appear on an X-ray.
“It’s a great tool for finding victims that are laying down that you may not see going through the rubble,” he said. “It allows us to walk through a building and look at it like it’s daylight in there — even if its completely filled with smoke — because it’s reading the heat coming off the people.”
Firefighters also use the cameras to find hot spots of flames that they may have missed. It’s also good for searches and rescues.
“We can use it anywhere,” Etheridge said. “We’ve used it out combing the beaches with the Coast Guard. ... When I was with the state troopers, we would borrow the fire department’s (camera) when we’d chase people into the woods. When it’s black out there, your flashlight only lights up a small area. It’s nice to be able to just walk through the woods and say ‘Oop, there they are.’”
Now that the Assembly gave its stamp of approval for the grant, the department is working with the city’s Finance Department to take it out to bid to find the lowest price possible. No local vendors in Juneau sell the cameras, but there are one or two vendors in Anchorage and a couple in the Washington area that will likely offer bids.
Etheridge said he’s excited to get the cameras, and it’s a necessary upgrade. They’ve sent the two current cameras out for repairs over the years, and one finally gave out last year.
“It’s sensitive electronic equipment, kind of like a laptop computer,” he said. “Except they’re going in with them into structure fires.”
Etheridge said he hopes to have the new cameras by November.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.