Imagine a burning house nearly engulfed in flames and a neighbor's pleas to help a friend trapped inside.
Firefighters have just arrived.
The clock is ticking.
A firefighter grabs a thermal imaging camera and makes his way to the house with fellow firefighters. They emerge minutes later. The victim is coughing, not unscathed perhaps, but most definitely alive.
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In a proactive stance to keep residents safe, the Fort Mill Fire Department is now armed with two new thermal imaging cameras.
"It helps us do our job better because it helps us see where the human eye can't," Fire Chief Ken Kerber said. "It's a tool that we use that can be a life saver."
The fire department recently purchased the cameras as part of a $27,715 V-SAFE grant. The cameras cost $22,193, according to fire department records. Also purchased was a laptop and associated software and fire rescue supplies and hoses used to help victims and injured firefighters.
Kerber applied for the grant in 2007. The S.C. State Fire Marshal's Office received 406 applications. Of those, 104 fire departments, including the Fort Mill Fire Department, were awarded the V-SAFE grant - a joint effort between the S.C. State Fire Marshal's Office and the S.C. Firefighters' Association.
The grant is specifically structured for fire departments with a high ratio of volunteer firefighters, Kerber said. In the Town of Fort Mill, nine firefighters are full time and 14 are volunteers, he said.
Notification of the grant award was handed down Feb. 1, 2008, paving for the way for the fire department to purchase its new gear last summer.
"Everything we bought with the grant proceeds is either directly or indirectly related to life-safety issues," Kerber said.
The department previously purchased a thermal imaging camera that is about 10 years old. Thermal imaging cameras make firefighters more efficient, said James Broome, a veteran firefighter with seven years of service.
"It takes us about three or less minutes to search a house with our thermal imaging camera," he said of an average size house. "Without it, that [search] goes up to five or more minutes."
Since acquiring the cameras, the department has not responded to a fire in which there was a victim hidden from view that needed to be located, Broome said. But if the unthinkable happened, the department stands ready. The technology also makes actual firefighting more efficient.
"We use the thermal imaging camera to find heat in walls," Kerber said. "This camera helps us find those hidden hotspots and the fire that is potentially fatal."
With the grant, officials also purchased two air cylinders for two rapid intervention packs and two hoses that, if needed, attach to the air cylinders. The gear is available for the "worst-case scenario and are a necessary part of the safety of our firefighters and civilians during a working fire," Kerber wrote in a letter documenting his progress in executing the grant.
The purchase of RIT bags was a necessary first for the fire department. The RIT bag is loaded with everything firefighters wear when battling fires and having such a bag could be the difference between life and death for a fire victim or down firefighter, Broome said.
"RIT is to get the (breathing) air to the guys who are running out of air," Broome said. "It has enough oxygen for about 35 to 40 minutes."
Also purchased with the grant money was a laptop. Officials plan to use the computer for quarterly inspections and to document emergency calls as well as origins and sources of fires, Kerber said. With the computer, fire officials can complete their fire reports on scene.
The computer also will be used when the department makes bimonthly fire prevention stops throughout the community, including schools. The idea is safety.
"Our priority is life safety and property preservation. That's what we do. Any new tools that we get that make our job more efficient or safer and makes our citizens safer is an appropriate use of the grant."