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Firefighters' view to a rescue

A $14,000 heat-sensing camera can locate victims, look for fire inside walls and save precious time. At a recent home fire, it ruled out the possibility of children trapped inside.

By RYAN DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


A mobile home was burning and five children were trapped inside, a neighbor said Wednesdaymorning when she called 911.

Eight minutes later firefighters arrived in Shady Hills. Flames were jumping from the home's back wall and smoke was pouring out all sides.

Pasco County firefighters turned to their newest lifesaving gizmo: a heat-sensing camera.

Firefighters with a hose pried open the front door of the single-wide home. Acting Battalion Chief Rick Caravona followed with the camera.

"I had clear visibility," Caravona said. "It was just like looking at a black and white TV screen."

The $14,000 camera allows rescue workers to see through the smoke and darkness. It looks like a blue, handheld police radar detector. But it's even more high tech. It can withstand water from a hose or a fall to the floor.

Infrared images are displayed on what is essentially a 4-inch television screen. The hottest spots show in white, cooler ones display as five shades of gray, then the coolest spots are black.

"You can see where a person is by the warmth of their body," fire rescue assistant chief Chris Alland said.

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue has about a half dozen of a similar device.

"You may not actually get to use it that often, but it pays for itself if you save one life," said spokesman Ray Yeakley.

Pasco's was put into service Tuesday with the county's western battalion. Its first use in the field came at Wednesday morning's fire. Rescue officials have applied for grants to get two more of the cameras, Fire Rescue Chief Anthony Lopinto said. He would like to get grants to purchase about 20 smaller, less expensive versions for every engine company in the county.

The camera will most often be used to search for people in fires. But it can also find a fire's "seed," which is its hottest point, Caravona said. And it finds fires hidden inside walls, Lopinto said.

Within five minutes on Wednesday, Caravona was nearly certain that no one was stuck inside the burning home. In eight minutes he was positive. As it turns out, some of the kids were at day care and others were with a relative.

Caravona said he's not sure how much longer it would have taken to search without the camera. The same crew fighting the blaze would have had to feel around in the dark for bodies.

Instead, the chief watched his crew work.

"They couldn't see me," he said "but I was able to see them."

-- Ryan Davis is the police reporter in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is rdavis@sptimes.com.

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