How A Thermal Camera Can Save Lives

December 12, 2019

thermal camera use in fire

Without a doubt, accidents give our lives an undesirable jolt - but in a greater sense they could be a timely reminder it’s high time we arm ourselves with a thermal camera. For our own good.

The alarming series of incidents that unfurled in Port Neches, Texas shows just how things can turn ugly pretty fast. Without warning. While no lives were actually lost that day, the fact that tens of thousands had to flee and get as far away from the scene of the blast that came from a TPC (Texas Petroleum Chemical) plant is a sad reminder that there are circumstances way beyond our control. Especially true in an industrial setting. In effect, the horrible accident turned people’s Thanksgiving into a scampering and scattering event for everyone’s personal safety. Instead of a family gathering over delicious turkey dinner.

You may not have seen a thermal camera before but grabbing one could be your best move if you want to max your chances in getting out of such a sticky situation alive. For their part, infrared imaging has gone a long way since the time when firefighters who were the first to adopt them found these devices to be a ‘necessary’ burden to carry. Not only have IR cameras gone smaller and lighter, but they’re also getting more powerful than ever. Adding more power to their punch. And in the process,  increasing their ability to save lives in times of emergency. Explore below how thermal cameras can be a lifesaver when horrible accidents like the Port Neches, Texas blast rock your own world. 

thermal cameras use in fire

Thanksgiving Horrors: Running for Their Lives

When it comes to oil production, the Lone Star State is putting America on the map - giving big oil-producing countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia a run for their money.

But it all comes at a price.

As the oil boom is putting a lot of money in their pockets, residents in Texas are well aware that their skyrocketing economy will have some trade-offs. And the sudden incident at Port Neches is a fateful reminder of that.

Too bad all this happened hours before these hard-working Texans could get a taste of their much-awaited American holiday of Thanksgiving. Getting the shock of their lives instead.

That Wednesday was like any ordinary day of the week. Until a series of explosions made it otherwise. At 01:00 local time (07:00 GMT), the first blast was heard coming from the Texas Petroleum Chemical refinery plant. Right from the get-go, the blast made its presence felt as the initial explosion injured three TPC Group employees.

It was so massive that the blast was felt even from 30 miles (48 km) away sending flames shooting into the sky like it’s the Fourth of July. Punching out windows of homes nearby and injuring some residents in the process.

But it didn’t end there. A series of secondary explosions followed.

Later, footages would show a flash of light clearly visible right before the plant was consumed by flames. And a door of a neighboring house blown off its hinges.

The nightmare came like a bolt of lightning out of the sky. As a Port Neches resident, Ryan Mathewson described it in the aftermath:  "We were the closest house to the plant. We woke up covered in glass doors blown in but we got out safe."

Authorities implemented a mandatory 4-mile radius evacuation (covering roughly over 6 km), displacing people in surrounding towns from Port Neches to Port Arthur.

Truly, such incidents shouldn’t be part of anyone’s reality. But experts understand it’s an inherent risk for communities feeding off from this petrochemical boom along the Gulf Coast.

The cause of the blast is still unknown, for now. However, records from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality show the Port Neches plant which has amongst its by-products ingredients used in synthetic rubber for car tires, has been fined in 2014 by state regulators for letting off toxic amounts of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Fine was set at $45,750.

Today, Texas is known as the energy capital of the world. With over 500 oil and gas exploration and 9 refineries, the state of black gold produces over 5 million barrels of crude daily.

fireman using thermal camera

Thermal Camera: Finding Your Way Out of a Port Neches Disaster - And Fast

Accidents are like the thief of the night - coming when you least expect it. The best way to deal with it then is to come prepared. Always.

Here are some of the major ways a thermal camera can get you out of danger when a disaster like Port Neches happens.

  1. Navigate your way to safety better.

In cases of fire, visibility is at an all-time low. You wouldn’t be able to see your way through all that fire and smoke. Worse, a wrong turn can lead you to your doom. A wayward direction could get you out of the frying pan but into the burning flame.

Fortunately, infrared imaging detects the presence of heat whether your eyes see them or not. By showing you which area of the house is the hottest you can find better routes to safety. Thermal imaging, in this sense, are your sixth sense as it allows you to detect high temperatures even when you don’t see them with your own eyes.

This is exactly why American firefighters have been able to navigate better through fires using thermography. Though their prices were prohibitive, thermal imaging cameras were sought by our brave first responders to deal with fire incidence better.

Know that thermal cameras register heat and do not see the world around us as we do. So even if you don’t see the burning wood behind a wall, a thermal camera would detect it sensing the heat of the flames affecting the surroundings.

  1. And fast.

The Port Neches blast came out of the blue. As nobody expected it to happen that day, everyone was caught flatfooted. In such cases when the disaster overcomes us with great speed, it’s but reasonable we get to safety in a jiffy.

This is where an infrared camera can come in handy. With models you can put in-pocket, you can get a better grasp of your surroundings even with all the smoke and all the mayhem. In effect, you get out of the situation and into safety faster.

Stories are a-plenty on how U.S. firefighters have been saved by thermal imaging. Small wonder why increased government equipment grants on thermal cameras have been observed following the September 11 Twin Tower attacks in 2001.

  1. Save the lives of your family.

While getting to safety is the first instinct of any human being, for a parent the idea of leaving kids behind is out of the question. This is simpler said than done when disaster strikes. Not only will you be stunned by a sudden explosion like that of Port Neches, but your senses could also be blunted by all the mayhem.

The good news is even with all the smoke, even with all the darkness, a thermal camera sees. It will show you portions of your surroundings that must be avoided as hot.

Most importantly, an IR cam will lead you to your next of kin. As every breathing human body is filled up with heat, the thermal device will show the presence of your most beloved even if they are fast asleep. Or lost consciousness.

The ability of thermal imaging camera to ‘see’ through darkness and smoke have allowed firefighters to save countless lives when fire erupts.

In general, firefighters use thermography to quickly locate the seat of the fire, a critical point to deal with. By knowing this, they are able to manage the situation better - hastening the fire’s end.

As early as 1999, thermal cameras were given credit for saving numerous lives year in year out by facilitating victim identification and immediate removal in spite of low visibility in cases of fire.

  1. Navigate through the darkness.

Whether you’re in your abode, out driving or in the wilderness running for your life, the dark is your enemy. Danger could be lurking without you knowing it. Unseen animals could be on the road.

There are a thousand and one predicaments that could happen when you’re left in the dark. Good thing, a thermal camera has the ability to see through pitch darkness. Or for that matter, dense smoke.

Animals around you will give a unique heat register betraying their presence. Even materials that are undergoing spontaneous, low-level combustion. With a blast such as the one in Port Neches, the fire could be thrown hundreds of meters away into an adjacent room to you. With thermal imaging, a quick view should show you the anomalous heat signature in record speed.

  1. Put order back into your abode.

Once all the mayhem has stopped, and everyone is told to go back to their homes, you must now restore your dwelling place back into its former glorious self. To go on with your life.

While a visual inspection should be taken, know that not all that looks safe in your abode may actually be so. Indeed, the outward calm can be deceptive. Heat could be brewing underneath some of the insulation, things beyond what your normal eyes can see. But not if an infrared camera can’t help it.  

It’s no accident thermal cameras have been a fave for home inspectors who cater to HVAC and electrical anomalies in the community. By deploying the device, they are able to detect anomalous heat signatures before these can become full-blown disasters. That goes way out of control.

It’s true. The Port Neches blast totally destroyed Thanksgiving for some Americans. For you, however, it could be a wake-up call to allow a thermal camera to start protecting you and your loved ones for life.



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