Smoke Penetrating Technology: What Light Works Best?

With the wildfires running rampant in the West, it’s always a good idea to have the proper tools on hand. When these fires outbreak the flames and heat aren’t the only thing to worry about – in fact the smoke is actually the more dangerous element. Blindly trying to find the way to safety, while trying not to breathe in the fumes is a no-go, especially for search and rescue workers and firefighters.

While breathing masks help rescuers avoid suffocating on the fumes, they’re still left with the dilemma of miming their way through the dense smoke. Since time is of the essence in an emergency situation, the stop and crawl isn’t effective for getting to victims. So, the best thing is to try to cut through the smoke with light.

No light can actually “cut” through smoke and make objects totally visible on the other side, but there are a few types of illumination that will allow professionals to navigate more successfully.

These lights include: red LEDs, infrared and thermal imaging.

Flashlights are one of the most essential pieces of equipment for firefighters and search and rescue, both handhelds and helmet mounted. Though there is no consensus on which flashlight works the best, most use flashlights with LED bulbs. LEDs generally out-perform incandescent in beam range and run time, and have a more intense beam. Because smoke disperses light, a narrow beam with good throw and very minimal spill is necessary. Spillage causes the iris to adjust to control the light, making it harder to see objects from far away. Additionally, an LED with a lower color temperature will help reduce dispersal. Lower color temperatures have longer wave lengths, so they are reflected less by rain or fog. This means red and yellow-toned LED bulbs are ideal over blue and bright white.

It is important to note that visibility will depend on the density of the smoke. Thinner smoke will allow more penetration of light, but thick black smoke will require thermal imaging.

Infrared light, though not visible to the naked eye can help cut through smoke a bit as well. Even in the darkest conditions there are smalls fragments of infrared light emitted by objects and people. With the use of night vision goggles, this infrared light can be collected and allow rescuers to see the objects and people it’s emanating from. The military uses FLIC (forward-looking infrared radiation), which detects infrared radiation emitted from a heat source and creates an image for video output. This technology allows them to see at night and in foggy/smoky conditions. This is not as common as flashlights, but still a notable vision tool.

The most common vision tool firefighters and rescuers use, is a technology called TIC. Like FLIC, Thermal imaging cameras render infrared radiation as visible light – picking up body heat ­– which shows up on a camera as red, orange and yellow, while normal temperature objects show up in grayscale. TICs create an “image” allowing rescuers to “see” through smoke and heat-permeable barriers.

Flashlights with low temp LEDs and tight beams are the best option for civilians and budgeting, since TICs and infrared technology can burn a hole in the bank pretty quick. Combating fires is serious business, and having the right technology to make us less helpless to mother nature is too.



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