At least one thermal camera on hand at Sofa Super Store

While Charleston firefighters searched for hidden fire inside the Sofa Super Store last month, heat-sensing cameras that can see through walls and ceilings sat unused in city fire trucks, authorities said.

The Charleston Fire Department owns four thermal imaging cameras, and at least one was available at the scene of the June 18 blaze, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said in an interview with The Post and Courier. He said he doesn't know why the devices weren't used that night.

It is unclear whether the cameras would have helped crews pinpoint the fire before it spun out of control and killed nine firefighters. But the devices, which cost $10,000 or more each, have become increasingly popular tools in the fire service for finding elusive blazes, spotting people trapped in burning buildings and other emergency tasks.

Thermal imaging cameras use infrared technology and a small video screen to help firefighters and rescue workers "see" through smoke, darkness, fog, dense vegetation and walls to find people and fire sources. The cameras weigh about five pounds each.

Charleston keeps a heat-sensing camera on each of its three ladder trucks so the captain on board will have one if needed, Thomas said. A spare thermal camera is on hand should one of the others stop working, he said.

"We keep them on the front seat of the ladder trucks, so that when they get off and he (the captain) needs the camera, it's right there," Thomas said.

One thermal imager was aboard a ladder truck that arrived at the store early on. Another ladder truck arrived later, but the fire was apparently well under way at that point, city officials said.

Thomas said fire crews did not take any cameras into Sofa Super Store that night. "I don't know why," he said.

Federal firefighter fatality reports routinely urge fire departments to use thermal imaging cameras to locate hidden fire and super-heated gases that can spontaneously ignite a room's flammable contents and trigger a flashover.

The Sofa Super Store building had a steel truss roof, a structure widely reviled in firefighting circles. The design's open-air cavities provide concealed spaces where fire can linger and grow undetected while the truss weakens to the point of collapse. Fire safety experts recommend that firefighters take extra precautions at fires involving steel trusses, such as inspecting concealed spaces before going into a building or using thermal imaging cameras to quickly to determine where the fire is.

Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, one of the department's first commanders on the scene of the Sofa Super Store blaze, has said that he and other firefighters entered the building looking for fire. At the time, they thought the showroom was safe because they saw nothing except "a little smoke in the back ceiling tiles," he said.

Garvin said he made the decision to send firefighters inside in order to get a better angle on fighting the fire.

Some 16 firefighters were inside the store when the building exploded in fire several minutes later, sending a ball of flame roaring through the showroom. Nine didn't make it out.

Paul Grimwood served more than 35 years with fire departments in London and New York and is now an author and consultant on firefighting tactics. He said images and first-hand accounts from the furniture store fire suggest that a thermal imaging camera could have served "a vital role here in determining if the fire had spread into the ceiling void."

Grimwood said the commander conducting the first check inside the building should have used a camera to identify or rule out hidden fire before sending crews inside. "This should have been done initially by the (first commander on the scene) even before committing crews. ..."

Thermal imaging cameras are commonplace in most large fire departments. But fatality investigations regularly find that firefighters fail, at their peril, to use thermal imagers as part of an initial "size-up" to help locate fires in concealed spaces.

In one investigation into a 2003 fire at a Family Dollar store in Memphis, Tenn., that killed two city firefighters, federal investigators said firefighters should have used a thermal camera to locate growing heat hidden in the store's steel truss ceiling. "Ceilings and floors that have become dangerously weakened by fire damage and are threatening to collapse may be spotted with a thermal imaging camera," the report said.

The Memphis Fire Department's own internal review of the fire recommended that all of the city's engines be outfitted with thermal imaging cameras because "these devices could have made a difference in the outcome of this fire."

The military was among the first to use thermal imaging cameras, beginning in the 1950s. Fire departments began using them in the 1980s, but early models were cumbersome and their image quality was lacking.

At a recent firefighters convention in Myrtle Beach, several vendors displayed the latest thermal imaging technology. Some models feature Wi-Fi technology and can beam real-time images from inside a structure to a separate monitor outside. Such advances can give incident commanders, who are supposed to be positioned away from firefighting activities, a firsthand look at what firefighters are seeing inside.

The North Charleston Fire Department has Wi-Fi units among the 11 thermal imaging cameras it has purchased, one for each of the city's fire stations. Mount Pleasant firefighters have several units as well. The St. Andrews fire department, which helped battle the Sofa Super Store blaze, has two thermal imagers and is hoping to get more.

"It's a phenomenal tool," St. Andrews Fire Chief Mark Schrade said. "It's great for detecting heat and finding individuals."

Phillip Russell, who oversees training at the South Carolina Fire Academy in Columbia, said the firefighting school has been training recruits to use thermal imaging cameras since 1999.

With the devices becoming standard equipment at fire departments around the state, the academy recently purchased additional cameras and now has 15 for instructors and students to train with in classroom and practical firefighting exercises.

Among the lessons students are taught is to use the camera to "locate hot spots before you make entry," Russell said.

Some of the academy's newer models can even capture video to a media card that can then be analyzed on a laptop computer. Still, he said the cameras should not supplant training and instincts. "It is just a tool. It's not something that takes the place of firefighting."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com. Reach Ron Menchaca at 937-5724 or rmenchaca@postandcourier.com.