Thermal-Powered Early Fire Detection

May 23, 2024
How thermal cameras can strengthen safety and situational awareness

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Security Business magazine. Don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter if you share it.

In an extremely short time frame, fires can cause tremendous damage to critical assets and endanger the lives of onsite personnel. Over the years, industrial plants, fuel storage facilities, and other critical infrastructure sites have implemented various strategies to extinguish fires quickly after they break out; however, facilities equipped with radiometric thermal imaging technology have the ability to detect the early warning signs of a potential fire before it ignites.

Using non-contact methods of measuring temperatures, thermal cameras are designed to detect hot spots and temperature irregularities to prevent fires long before they break out. Whether deployed to monitor battery storage facilities, recycling plants, bulk storage facilities, or scrap yards, these early fire detection (EFD) technologies equip security and operations personnel to avert disaster, protect operational efficiency, and improve safety for workers and the public.

The Historical Shift from Reactive to Proactive Systems

For decades, smoke alarms were positioned as a cost-effective and efficient technology for detecting the initial stages of a fire. For storage facilities that housed large quantities of combustible materials, for example, firefighting systems deployed smoke alarms to detect smoldering materials ahead of spontaneous combustion. However, considering a small fire in a plant like this can turn into a major flame in fewer than 30 seconds, identifying the presence of smoke simply was not enough.

In contrast, EFD cameras offer personnel minutes, hours, and, in some cases, days of advanced warning, depending on the exact use case, giving first responders significantly more time to react to and prevent a potential fire. Especially for applications for which visual indicators, such as smoke, are not a reliable signal of an impending fire, radiometric thermal devices enable operators to see potential temperature changes at the surface that could indicate an issue underneath. Based on the information, proper procedures can be followed in a safe manner.

Understanding Thermal Technology

Thermal cameras produce an image by detecting subtle temperature differences. Viewing a scene using a “white-hot” pallet, the camera will assign the whitest white to the pixel(s) with the hottest temperature and the darkest black to the pixel(s) with the coolest temperature, such that even the smallest change in temperature between the hottest pixel and the coolest pixel will receive a slightly different shade on the gray scale.

For EFD applications, a customer would use a radiometric thermal camera so that, in addition to visualizing changes in temperature, the device would also produce usable temperature data. All camera specifications differ, but it is common for radiometric cameras to produce temperature data for a “spot” or a “box.”

Within a spot, the camera takes the average of a small group of pixels to create a single temperature reading, a function which is used most often to monitor the temperature of a small object. Within a box, on the other hand, the camera provides the hottest temperature, the coolest temperature, and the average temperature of all the pixels in the box.

Today, it is common to use boxes for EFD applications, enabling users to monitor an area of interest in tandem with a not-to-exceed threshold set for the box. Using this function for EFD applications generates alarms automatically, if/when the threshold temperature within the box is exceeded, instantaneously disseminating the notification using whichever third-party system is being used at the site.

Benefits of Deploying EFD Thermal Technology

Thermal EFD devices are designed to work in tough conditions, such as very dark and dusty spaces, as well as rooms that house hazardous materials and/or machinery. By equipping personnel to monitor critical assets remotely, thermal technology can help users determine how to best approach the situation based on the information they receive.

For example, if a pile of materials is identified as warming up, EFD systems can help users decide whether to spread them out, so they lose their heat or to trigger a sprinkler system, depending on the situation. Regardless of the necessary firefighting response, radiometric cameras used for EFD represent a vital investment in the security of assets and personnel. Combined with effective security solutions, you’ve got all your bases covered.

The Power of a “Single Pane of Glass” System

As part of a critical facility’s system-wide alarm response, EFD strategies are critical to protecting internal applications; however, they are only one piece of the puzzle. External threat detection systems, such as perimeter intrusion detection systems, are just as important when considering the overall security of assets and personnel.

By bringing both log/sensor data (internal) and threat intelligence (external and internal) applications together under a single architecture, facilities can embrace a “single-pane-of-glass” strategy, making it possible for security and operations professionals to access everything in one place. Many organizations recognize the unique capabilities of these kinds of systems to strengthen the collection and management of data, which allows teams to instantly collaborate and decide on the best course of action for high-priority alerts. As more organizations successfully merge these systems into one, the value and need for these sensors will only grow.

Looking Forward

With EFD applications, most organizations are concerned about a sudden rise in temperature, or a threshold being breached. As such, with EFD cameras, organizations are not as concerned about the accuracy of the temperature in the area they are monitoring if it is accurate to the relative scene.

When looking beyond EFD applications, users are often interested in trying to locate a potential threat before it becomes a large-scale problem, these applications are often referred to as condition monitoring. Here, we are anlayzing temperature data over an extended time period; however, accuracy and reliability are critical. For these applications, most customers are using more precise radiometric cameras to monitor critical pieces of equipment or key points of failure. The purpose of these types of systems is to catch abnormal conditions in the early stages before they result in problems such as equipment failure or a fire. Examples of these types of systems include continuously measuring the temperature of a transformer at a substation or monitoring critical points of interest in a manufacturing line.

When looking to implement any system using thermal cameras, it is critical for integrators to work closely with trusted manufacturers to recommend the best type of system for an end-user’s unique needs. Many thermal cameras can produce temperature readings; however, not all thermal cameras are created equally. Accuracy ranges vary between cameras and manufacturers, and, while many types of cameras are suitable for EFD and threshold alarming applications, fewer meet the requirements for providing continuous analysis.

Implementing the right thermal cameras in temperature monitoring applications not only provides better situational awareness, it also helps provide a safer work environment.

Matthew Strautman is the Director of Global Business Development for Teledyne FLIR.

About the Author

Matthew Strautman

Matthew Strautman is the Director of Global Business Development for Teledyne FLIR.