High-technology arrived just in the nick of time to save a 65-year-old disabled woman trapped by flames that enveloped the bedroom of her Panorama City home this month.
Earlier that day, firefighters in the Los Angeles Fire Department's 39th Squad, an elite unit based in Van Nuys, received one of the department's two new thermal-imaging cameras. The other went to a similar unit in Chinatown.
With the $11,000 Nightsight Thermal Vision System, made by Raytheon, firefighters were able to find the elderly woman by using the camera to "see" her body heat.
The thermal-imaging device looks like a small hand-held video camera and can detect people and other warm objects in darkness and--perhaps most importantly for firefighters--dense smoke.
Crawling on their stomachs, a four-man team of firefighters searched the house with the camera the afternoon of Dec. 2.
Through the lens, they were able to pick out a light gray image. The paraplegic woman was unconscious, half in, half out of bed, apparently having tried escape.
The woman suffered burns over 50% of her body and remains hospitalized, officials said.
Firefighter Charles Boswell said the thermal-imaging device dramatically cuts down on search-and-rescue times in smoke-filled buildings. A typical five- to six-minute search can be done in less than a minute using the camera, he said.
"It gives us the extra time we need to save lives," said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Ruda.
Fire officials plan to use the camera to find fire victims and people thrown from cars in accidents, hurled into dark bushes at night, for example. It can also be used to locate fires hidden behind walls, the hottest spot on a roof to ventilate a burning building, or hillside hot spots in a brush fire.
Though the 3 1/2-pound camera cannot detect images through water or glass, it can focus between eight feet and five miles. It is expected to be helpful in finding victims trapped in flood control channels. Because of debris and sediment that flows into the channels after rains, victims swept into the channels are sometimes surrounded by dirty water and difficult to see.
Images appear ghostlike in shades of white and gray. The warmer the object, the darker the image.
The Los Angeles Fire Department looked at another company's model, a camera attached to a firefighter's helmet but it cost about $25,000, could not change focus and weighed too much on the helmet, said Capt. Don Frazeur.
The department hopes to get more cameras but will first complete a six-month study of the effectiveness of the two current cameras and examine alternatives. Frazeur said there are cameras being developed that allow firefighters to carry most of the weight on their backs but see through a small lens mounted on their helmets.
Because of budget constraints, it is unclear when the Fire Department will be able to buy more cameras.
"When the budgets are tight you really have to scrutinize how [money is] spent--on what is need-to-have versus like-to-have," Ruda said.
But despite the new technology, firefighters will not abandon long-held rescue rules. Los Angeles firefighters will continue to search burning buildings twice for victims, Ruda said. In the past, firefighters have found children and adults hiding from the flames in bathrooms and closets.
"There's nothing worse for a firefighter than to miss a victim," he said.