Fireboat electronics: Thermal imagers, side-scan sonar score big
5/23/2022

I’ve always been fascinated by the various working boats in harbors around the country. Most go about their business without much fanfare, that is until they are called on to do their jobs—like chasing law breakers, driving in new dock pilings,  running hard to extinguish an onboard fire or search for victims from some sort of mishap. I had the opportunity during the Miami International Boat Show in February to spend an afternoon with the crew aboard one of the boats at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR). Our thanks go out to the dedicated and highly skilled firefighters that operate those boats 24/7.

—Jim Fullilove
Marine Electronics Journal Editor


Fireboats come in a wide variety of types and sizes, from 25-foot catamarans sporting a single high-powered water cannon (called monitors in the trade) to multi-deck vessels bristling with nearly a dozen nozzles. Two 108-footers in Long Beach, CA, reportedly the largest on the West Coast, can shoot a stream of water the length of two football fields and 20 stories high. No matter their size, these vessels are serious players focused on extinguishing fires and conducting search and rescue missions quickly. (Photo courtesy of firefighter Andy Machado and MDFR)

Electronics aboard fireboats aren’t much different than those on other commercial and recreational vessels, but there are two pieces of technology that have become essential. One is thermal imaging—the other is side-scan sonar.

"Thermal imaging is a game changer for us. We can see hot spots inside the hull and zero in on the fire,” says Elicio Melcon, a firefighter/paramedic and one of the operators aboard a new 55-foot vessel built by Metal Shark. The aluminum fireboat is one of two newbuilds on the job. A third 55-footer will join the MDFR fleet later. Metal Shark’s in-house team installed the electronics at its boat building facility in Jeanerette, LA.

Detecting hotspots

A feature of the gyrostabilized FLIR M400 XR that Melcon and the crew find particularly useful is the ability to change the isotherm threshold to indicate hotter locations inside a hull in red/orange or cooler ones in blue/green. He adds that while fiberglass boats burn very hot, metal boats can turn into ovens.

At night you can touch a target on the radar display and click "camera” and the thermal imager will point at the target, enabling the boat to navigate toward it. If the target is "acquired” the camera will track it. The M400 XR can also track AIS (Automatic Identification System) targets.

Control of the thermal camera is possible from three helm stations inside the aluminum vessel. The two forward stations accommodate the "driver” to starboard and the engineer to port. Both stations have dual 12-inch Raymarine Axiom Pro MFDs along with propulsion and other operational controls. Aft of the driver’s console is a station for the boat officer (a lieutenant or captain) that’s equipped with a pedestal-mounted 16-inch Axiom Pro, an Axiom XL16 MFD set into the table top and a complete communications package.

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