Five steps to selecting the best thermal imagers for your agency
By Brad Harvey
As law enforcement agencies adopt thermal imaging technology, agency decision makers are faced with the challenge of selecting the right product and accessories to meet their specific needs. Evaluators must select among several technologies, a great number of product features, a range of accessories, and a wide variety of service and support offerings. With the increasing complexity of the market, many agencies are finding it difficult to determine which thermal imager (TI) and which accessories they should purchase. This article aims to provide a picture of the ideal evaluation process, which should result in your agency making the best purchase decision.
Step One: Team Up and Learn
Before initiating the evaluation, take the time to learn the basics of thermal imaging. How does the technology work? What are the uses and limitations of TIs? Evaluation teams should seek instruction from local agencies using TIs, local or state training agencies, private consulting or training groups, national trade shows, training seminars and even TI manufacturers. Be sure to verify what you are learning from as many independent sources as possible, because there is a lot of conflicting and inaccurate information in the field.
Law enforcement agencies lacking the resources or time to conduct an independent evaluation can request results from trusted agencies that have conducted extensive evaluations. By using evaluation reports from outside sources, an agency can gain the perspective of someone who has been through the process, without investing the time to conduct a thorough evaluation. If you rely on another agency’s report, try to compare their operational needs with yours to ensure that what is best for them is also best for you.
Step Two: Do Your Homework
After researching what is available as well as what other law enforcement agencies have found useful, develop an initial outline specifying what you believe are the critical features for a TI. Differentiate between “essential features” (such as durability) and “desirable features” (such as long battery life). Then review the units available and determine if you can immediately eliminate any of them from your evaluation process. You may eliminate a unit because it lacks a feature you feel is critical, or because it received poor reviews from other agencies. Even if you limit the initial field to two or three TIs, the evaluation process can demand a great deal of time and resources.
Step Three: The Classroom Test
Evaluating teams should always keep one key thought in mind: there is no recognized consensus standard for TI performance. As a result, law enforcement agencies should ensure that the supplier proves every claim he makes. If the supplier says his/her TI can stay underwater for an hour, fill up the kitchen sink and start a timer. If the supplier says the TI can be tossed across the room, then clear a path and let the tossing begin. While most suppliers are honest and ethical, some may unfairly stretch the truth to win your business. To protect yourself and your agency’s purchase, do not accept any claim or statement as fact until the supplier proves it.
For convenience, attempt to schedule all presentations on the same day or the same week, with all evaluation committee members present to ask questions and document their impressions of each manufacturer. Ideally, committee members should use a checklist or table to document their conclusions and to help ensure that a fair and equal comparison is made between the TIs.
Step Four: The Real World Test
Careful planning and preparation are essential to a successful hands-on evaluation. Before the evaluation, decide how you will test the features that mean the most to your agency, and develop a checklist to make sure that committee members are using the same criteria. Test each feature of the unit under various conditions and scenarios, such as simulated hazmat incidents, crime scene investigation, surveillance and outdoor searches. Crawl with each unit; look under objects. Determine if the TI can be carried easily, or if a surveillance team can use the TI for an extended period of time. Do not fall into the trap of single-use evaluation. Given the investment you are preparing to make, the imager you ultimately select should be as versatile as possible. A TI should be flexible and adapt well to use in a variety of circumstances and situations. Even if your agency does not anticipate use of an advertised function or application, you never know what the future may hold.
Evaluate the TI under obscurant conditions such as fog, smoke, steam or inclement weather. Don’t forget daylight evaluations as well. How does the imager perform in the daylight? Does the screen develop an unmanageable glare? Accident investigations, fugitive searches, evidence recovery and other applications may occur in the daytime as well, so make sure the imager is up to the task.
Have members write notes about each TI immediately after using it. To help quantify the evaluation process, members should be encouraged to rank specific factors using a number scale. Develop the scale and factor sheet in advance, grading such aspects as ease of use, performance in the field, ability to carry other equipment, etc.
Step Five: The Decision
Once you have determined which TI you will purchase, place your order or formulate the bid documents. The distributor or manufacturer can help you write appropriate bid specifications.
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