OSKALOOSA — Oskaloosa Firefighter Adam Haroldson headed in the back door of a structure fire, into a room filled with smoke.
Haroldson said another firefighter had gone through the front door with one of the department’s thermal imaging cameras.
“I can’t see anything in front of my face so the only thing I can do is take my tool and bang on the floor to see if there’s anything in front of me or if there’s a hole in front of me,” he said, “and there was a hole in the floor that he [the other firefighter] could see but I couldn’t.”
That’s why having thermal imaging cameras are invaluable, Haroldson said.
“I would have fallen right into the seat of the fire. So these [thermal imaging cameras]are literally our eyes,” he said. “If you come to my house tonight and close your eyes and try to find my bedroom, you’re not going to be able to do it. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in the middle of the night with these fires. Obviously, that’s our job and that’s what we train for but these are 100 percent invaluable when it comes to that.”
Currently, the department only has two of the cameras. They’re getting older, Haroldson said, and reaching a time where they need to be replaced.
Mahaska Drug owner Jane Nicholson couldn’t stop her mind from racing after coming home from a recent Golden Goose Club meeting.
The Golden Goose Club is a local organization that helps support community improvement projects. Haroldson recently gave a presentation at the quarterly meeting. A different project was selected that night.
“After I went home, I couldn’t even get to sleep that night because I was so worried,” she said. “We didn’t pick that for the Golden Goose project, so all I could keep thinking is this not only could possibly save our firefighters; it could save someone’s child or grandchild or myself or a friend.”
Nicholson said she kept fretting about the fire department’s need.
“I just kept thinking ‘what can we do’ and I finally decided we’ve got to come up with a fundraiser so they don’t have to wait for this technology,” she said. “So about 3 o’clock in the morning, it came to my brain how about ‘fill the boot.’ I know that’s kind of like the muscular dystrophy thing they do, but I thought we’ve got to get something in the community so they know our firemen need this technology because it could literally save them or save one’s family members.”
Haroldson said the thermal imaging cameras see in heat signatures. In a room that’s 1,000 degrees, he can find a person because they would be a different temperature than the atmosphere.
“Or I can find my fire hose if I lose my fire hose, or I can find anything that I want to find and find my way through the smoke because everything has a heat signature and it gives off a different heat,” he said. “So I can see doorways, I can see windows, I can see everything that I never would ever be able to see otherwise. It’s literally what we have to have. It’s not an option.”
The cameras have come down in price, Haroldson said, and range from around $600 to $1,000 for handheld versions and the big ones are around $6,000.
“The first ones we bought were $30,000,” he said. “And these do five times more. So technology’s catching up, finally, with this side of our job and we can’t be waiting any longer.”
During that fire, had Haroldson fallen into that hole at his feet, he wouldn’t have had a way out as the stairs had burned away.
“That’s the whole reason behind these things, is we’ve had too many of these calls and it happens everywhere every day,” he said. “And that’s why we want to protect ourselves so we can do what we do.”
In a smoke or fire-filled room, seconds matter.
“I have to feel around with my hands and go up and down in bunk beds and everything else; [whereas] I can go and scan the whole room and do a more detailed search as well,” he said. “I can hit all the rooms when I could have had one room done.”
Fundraising is in the beginning stages right now, Haroldson said.
“We just want to get the word out there that this is what we’re really trying to do and why we’re doing it,” he said. “It’s not just because we want some new stuff. It’s because we really just do need it. It’s one of those things to do our job the best that we can do, and with the equipment that we have, we just have to bite the bullet and do what we’ve got to do to get it done.”
Nicholson said she believes people are going to be on board to help raise funds.
“It’s a matter of life and death, could be, for our firefighters,” she said, “so we’ve just got to make it happen one way or another. “
The goal is to purchase at least 12 thermal imaging cameras. The fundraising goal is $20,000, with a deadline of Feb. 29. Current plans are to place boots in local businesses where community members can donate.