An animal’s instinct in a house fire is often to hide and hunker down. This is, per a small poll, frustrating for first responders.

But the technology that has saved countless Bend pets — thermal imaging cameras — has proved its worth when the stakes have been far greater, according to Dave Howe, battalion chief for Bend Fire Department.

“If they can find a cat, they can find a kid,” he said.

The cameras create an image using thermal radiation, rather than visible light. The latest generation of hand-held displays are lightweight and hook right to a firefighter’s jacket.

They allow one to maneuver in smoke-filled rooms. They assist locating overheated appliances, or victims ejected in multivehicle crashes. They’re huge after a fire is knocked down in searching for flare-ups.

The most valuable use is looking for life, Howe said.

“Without them, we’re completely blind,” he said.

Technology has changed the game for modern first responders. When Andy Hood started as a firefighter in the late 1980s, the jacket he wore into a fire was made of flammable cotton. Today, the Bend Fire Department battalion chief wears a coat made of water-repellant thermal insulated synthetic fibers.

Thermographic cameras have been around for nearly 100 years, but only recently, with advances in durability and reliability, have they become indispensable, Hood said. All Bend fire personnel are trained on them. Most who enter a burning building are wearing one. (For training purposes, all personnel learn how to get around in the smoke without one.)

The cameras are much sturdier now, and their image resolution is far better. They can record and stream to a firefighter’s Bluetooth device. Bend fire added its first thermal imaging cameras in 2003, but they were costly and unreliable, Howe said. Today, there’s one on just about every piece of apparatus.

The newest cameras cost between $4,000 and $5,000 and were purchased in 2016 by the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Fund. The Florida-based sub sandwich chain offers customers the option of rounding up their meal purchases to the nearest dollar, and those dividends are donated to public safety agencies around the country.

The cameras proved their worth last week. At around 10 a.m. on Jan. 16, Bend fire was called to the St. Vincent De Paul social service agency on SE Third Street. Smoke was visible from the outside of the building, according to a Bend fire incident narrative.

A Cascade Disposal garbage truck had hooked an electrical line outside the St. Vincent food bank, and in the process, caused the power line to arc.

Arriving firefighters weren’t sure what to make of the situation — electrical lines carry a tremendous amount of energy. Firefighter Garth White pointed his thermal imaging camera at the power line conduit and saw the temperature on the other side was “well over” 400 degrees, according to the report.

The crew used a dry chemical fire extinguisher to prevent the burning wires from igniting the food bank into a full-on structure fire.

Aside from saving lives and property and helping first responders do their jobs, the cameras are just fun to mess around with. As such, they get children’s attention. And when firefighters on an outreach mission to a local school have a child’s focus, that’s when they can move the conversation to more serious matters.

“This is a great show-and-tell tool,” Hood said. “We say, ‘Now that we’ve got your attention, let me tell you about something that’s really important — those lighters and matches? Those are tools for your mom and dad.”

A lot of thought goes into getting a message to sink in, Hood said.

“Every age is different. With a first-grader, you have five minutes.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com

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