The assistance of an airborne unit equipped with thermal imaging cameras is a wonderful thing for public safety professionals, whether involved in a SWAT operation, a fugitive search or manning a fixed guard post. In many smaller municipalities and rural areas, however, such a resource can be hard to come by.
Fortunately, more affordable handheld thermal imaging devices are not only filling the gaps but are becoming a vital part of public safety – even for the smallest agencies. Day or night, fair or foul weather, private security or public safety, handheld thermal imagers like those in FLIR’s Scout and LS Series’ are quickly becoming science fact for those on the front lines of public safety.
The Needs: Deployment Strategies
Even if a group or organization can only field a single shared handheld thermal imaging device, users will undoubtedly find a growing number of unique uses with each deployment. Whether finding an armed fugitive hiding in the park or a missing Alzheimer’s patient on a cold night, thermal imaging saves lives.
Thermal imagers can improve safety and security in several ways:
Perimeter team - Whenever a perimeter is established to contain fugitives after a crime, handheld thermal imagers become a massive force multiplier. With the ability to see through total darkness, light foliage, smoke or haze and the ability to separate camouflaged, motionless humans from the background clutter, a thermal device makes finding hidden bad guys far easier than night vision devices (NVD). Plus, they work 24-hours a day.
Missing persons - With the ability to quickly cover ground by highlighting all warm objects, a visual sweep of a search area is easy using thermal imaging. Even if the person is hiding (a common event with missing children), unconscious or uncooperative, a thermal device can highlight their heat signature and help rescuers pinpoint their location.
Building security - Thermal imaging isn’t the sole province of law enforcement. Security teams use thermal imagers to detect intruders at great distances along fence lines and to quickly search grounds and buildings for trespassers without disclosing their own position. In addition, thermal imagers can detect overheated equipment that presents an imminent fire risk.
Warrant teams- The well-equipped warrant team should have at least one thermal imager at hand to detect booby traps, hidden guard dogs and escaping fugitives. In the infamous Boston Marathon Bomber case, terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was located with a FLIR thermal imaging camera that detected his heat body heat as he hid inside a boat covered by a thin plastic tarp.
Natural resources crime - For officers who work the outdoor beat, thermal imaging devices are on par with a detection canine for finding hidden firearms, discarded game, or poachers operating under the cover of darkness. Furthermore, thermal imagers can often find the source of chemical leaks or other environmental contamination due to the differing thermal signatures.
Urban patrol - Alleys and other dark areas are the natural habitats of criminals. For the cost of an inferior NVD, a patrol officer can be equipped with a handheld thermal imaging device that works night or day and clearly distinguishes people lurking in the shadows by revealing them in vivid color.
Highway Interdiction units - Hidden compartments in vehicles often have a different thermal signature than non-modified areas. Use of a thermal imaging camera can quickly, easily and non-destructively point out areas that require further investigation.
Surveillance teams - Aside from finding people who are trying to remain hidden, thermal imagers can be used to determine if vehicles have been recently driven. Rather than sneaking up to a vehicle to determine if it was recently used, a quick drive-by using a thermal imager can show a hot engine and confirm that the target has recently been on the move.
Pursuits - Suspects commonly toss weapons or drugs during foot or vehicle pursuits. An officer can easily find discarded evidence, especially firearms – even in tall grass or shrubs – using a thermal imager. If the Perpetrators bail out and run into a field or woods, a thermal imager is the perfect tool to find them wherever they are attempting to hide.
Drug units - With sufficient probable cause or a judicial warrant, thermal imaging devices are the gold standard to detect illegal drug labs or clandestine growing operations without tipping off the occupants. Later, when a warrant is being served, the thermal device can help find hidden occupants, discarded drugs or equipment and booby traps for the warrant team.
Conclusion: Get them on the street!
For years, experts have been predicting that thermal imaging will become as ubiquitous to public safety as GPS and digital radios. In 2017, we are now seeing the start of that trend as handheld thermal cameras become smaller, lighter and less expensive. For example, the FLIR Scout TK has a suggested retail price of around $600 and puts an incredible amount of sensor technology into the hands of the front-line man or woman. Higher resolution Scout models and longer range LSX/R law enforcement models start at $1,999 and $2,599, respectively.
Forward-thinking agency heads and even individual officers or agents are no longer waiting for someday because they realize the needs are great and the cost of handheld thermal technology is now within reach of nearly any group or professional.