Story highlights

Smoke can hide unconscious victims from firefighters

Firefighters have used thermal cameras to locate victims

New device projects thermal image into firefighters' masks

CNN  — 

What’s the most dangerous thing in a fire?

If you think it’s the flames or the heat, that’s understandable: those are dangerous, too. But both from a victim’s and a firefighter’s perspective, the deadliest enemy is smoke.

Smoke causes more fire deaths than flames, according to the National Fire Protection Association, because people are incapacitated by fumes so quickly that they can’t get to safety.

And it leaves firefighters blind, because it’s impossible to see anything in a smoke-filled room.

That’s why firefighting teams use special cameras that allow them to see through the smoke, rendering images based on heat rather than light.

They’ve been around for decades, but they’ve always had one crucial flaw.


Humans lose consciousness when oxygen concentration drops below 9 percent, but start losing judgment and coordination at around 17 percent, a whiff below the normal amount in breathable air of 21 percent.

In a building on fire, that means smoke can often hide unconscious or disorientated victims. To be able to spot them – and also see danger areas by gauging heat levels – rescue teams must be equipped with thermal imaging cameras, which show heat in brighter colors over darker backgrounds.

But here’s the problem: “Conventional systems require you to hold the camera, so you can look into the screen - but for firefighters to not have a free hand in a dangerous environment is not ideal,” said Graham Wilson, director at Design Reality, His UK-based company was tasked by firefighting equipment manufacturer Scott Safety to create a product that could address this specific concern.


Scott’s idea was to integrate the thermal camera into the mask all firemen already use, the respirator. It has multiple functions, but primarily it protects from particles and smoke.

The new camera, called Sight, is small and – at around 8 ounces – light enough to not add significantly to the heft of the mask. But it projects a small thermal image inside the mask, at nine frames per second. Further settings can be easily configured through a smartphone app.

scott sight 2

Since it is mounted on an essential piece of equipment, every member of a rescue team gets one, which it’s hoped will increase safety as it means firemen can see for themselves, rather than rely on voice indications from a team leader wielding the camera.

According to its makers, it’s the first of its kind in production: “But in the industry the idea is not that novel, because everyone has wanted it for so long,” said Wilson. “The challenge was to turn it into a product.”

Another challenge was to not bog down the mask itself: “It was tricky to fit new tech into an existing mask, because we can’t afford to lose any performance on the respirator – it has standards we need to respect,” said Wilson.

The solution? No cables: the camera sends information to the in-mask display system wirelessly, so there’s no need to penetrate the mask with a cable, which would limit the field of vision.


From the conceptual stage, Sight was developed in collaboration with actual firefighters, who were engaged in tests and training sessions: “The key tell to whether this was gonna do well,” said Wilson, “Was when it was launched and firemen were coming up to our stands at conventions to say ‘Hallelujah, we’ve been wanting this for so long!’”

Compared to traditional hand-held cameras, which can cost thousands of dollars, the Sight is also more affordable: it retails for around $1,500 inclusive of the mask.

But Wilson believes the real selling point is elsewhere. “This product is going to save lives,” he said. “What more could you want?”