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Thermal Imaging Cameras Feel The Heat

Fort Lauderdale Boat Show captains event touts the use of thermal imaging cameras to detect fires on board


The high-profile fire aboard the catamaran Seafaris in Australia in October brought to the fore the dangers any vessel faces when such incidents occur out of reach of help. The 135-foot (41.1-meter) charter yacht burned to the water with passengers and crew rescued by a cargo ship.

“Fire on a yacht is quantum compared to anything on ground,” states Captain Herb Magney, who, as a charter captain and volunteer firefighter, has seen fires on an oil tanker, a sailing vessel and a high-speed passenger ferry, but to his relief, never on one of his client’s yachts.

At an event for captains during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in November that featured representatives of AIG Private Client Group Yacht Division, and Bullard, a fire-protection specialist company, AIG Yacht Loss Prevention Specialist Carl Lessard touted the advantages that modern fire-detection technology brings to the table.

“Fire is the least frequent, but the most severe property claim,” Lessard said. “Your fire-alarm system will sound telling you there is a problem, but in order to fight a fire, you need to find it. It is essential to save time, money and lives by quickly detecting where the fire is located and that requires a thermal imaging camera.”

Lessard cited an example of a crew that took 28 minutes to find a fire on a 295- foot (90-meter) yacht. By that time, it had spread through the master suite and took six hours to extinguish. “With a thermal imaging camera, the fire could have been located in minutes and extinguished in a far shorter time,” he said.

While many yachts have a self-contained breathing apparatus on board, a fire-specific thermal imaging camera (TIC) has become a valuable, military-tested addition to some yacht firefighting arsenals. A TIC can detect hot spots, including the location of people or fires in dark and smoky spaces. While a flashlight is useless, bouncing light off smoke particles, a TIC sees only heat and will facilitate locating the fire and guests needing rescue. It can also monitor success of the firefight as the heat subsides. At the event, Bullard discussed its Eclipse LD (large display) camera, which can produce high-resolution images in temperatures greater than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

But no equipment is effective unless the entire crew is trained to locate and use it. AIG strongly recommends fire-protection team training, such as the fire and safety course offered by Fort Lauderdale-based Resolve Maritime Academy. Lessard also encouraged captains to conduct realistic drills and to check fire alarm systems regularly since breakdowns or wiring issues could occur over time. And as yachts become increasingly dependent on electronic devices and services, the large amount of wiring hidden between walls and the superstructure makes the specific location of a problem harder to locate. With a TIC, a crewmember can find the fire’s hot spot, thus simplifying and shortening the detection process, and quickly subdue what otherwise might be an out-of-control fire.

While a TIC can detect warmth, even showing where a person was—if they fled from a bed or chair to another location, for instance—it cannot see through glass or water, and it may be deflected from stainless-steel glare. These limitations suggest the importance of guest instructions to stay clear of glass in an emergency. Also, while thermal imaging cameras are often touted to assist with “man overboard” situations, they will not see someone totally submerged, only the body parts above water.

The TIC is the yacht crew’s strongest asset in locating a fire, as evidenced by its use on every warship and sub in the U.S. Navy, said Bullard’s Rob Healy. “We think that is a strong testimonial to the tool’s value.”

Since onboard fires can be traced to a variety of sources—from engine overheating, welding, electrical wiring, overloaded circuitry, a tipped iron, an overheated air conditioner or accumulated dryer lint catching fire—another recommendation for fire safety came from Magney. His guest-welcome speech always includes, “If anything seems out of place—if it doesn’t smell right, taste right or feel right—report it. If you are aware of and trust your own senses, we have extra sets of alarm systems on board.”

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