Body Heat Cameras Save Lives in Central Virginia

By: Chris Stover Email
By: Chris Stover Email

April 22, 2013

A piece of technology pivotal in helping capture the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings can be found in central Virginia, and it's something that can help save lives.

Thermal imaging cameras show heat sources, including the natural energy a human gives off. The Charlottesville Fire Department uses them not just to find people, but to find fires.

"We could walk around the exterior of a house and maybe find where the fire is located in the house before firefighters enter," battalion chief Richard Jones said.

The cameras have recently gained more popularity in the past week.

"It's being marketed to police, military and other organizations that use them, like recently in the news, the Boston police used a larger one that's mounted on vehicles," Jones said.

Massachusetts State Police used a similar but higher-powered thermal imaging camera to find Boston Marathon bombings suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev last week hiding in a boat.

Charlottesville battalion chief Doug McGlothlin explained how the cameras are used locally.

"You could detect the heat through the walls or you can detect where a person or a heated object has been in contact with a surface," McGlothlin said.

Even in a pitch-black room with zero visibility, the cameras would allow emergency crews to detect exactly where someone may be.

"The normal room's ambient temperature is going to be roughly 70 degrees. His body temperature is roughly 98 degrees, so therefore in this image, his body appears to be brighter in color than the surroundings," McGlothlin said, demonstrating the camera.

It's that basic principle that led authorities to determine Tsarnaev was in the boat -- the same thing local firefighters use when it matters most.

"They've saved lives all across the country, and that's what we're about in the fire services -- saving lives and protecting property, and being able to get victims out and keeping firefighters safe, and keeping them out of those hazardous conditions," Jones said. "That's where it's the biggest benefit."

Jones said the technology is getting better while the costs are getting cheaper, so the fire department has the cameras equipped on many of its trucks.

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