Sixteen handheld thermal imaging cameras will soon be in the hands of search-and-rescue teams in the Norton Sound region, thanks to a donation from Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (NSEDC). Alaska State Troopers will be distributing these bi-ocular cameras to 15 member communities and Shishmaref within the next few weeks.
Dan Harrelson, Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) for White Mountain and chairman of NSEDC’s board of directors, said these cameras should significantly improve SAR operations—hopefully, saving many lives. Harrelson said previously, only one thermal imaging camera, based out of Nome, was shared among all 16 communities.
“When you need a piece of equipment, you need it right now. And usually when we have searches it’s in inclement weather when we’re probably not able to get airplanes. So to have to wait for a unit to come from Nome could be eight hours—it could be three days before you could get the unit,” said Harrelson. “You know, time is of the essence—it’s critical when you’re doing searches for people.”
And, Harrelson pointed out, if the camera did arrive with enough time to be used in a search, VPSOs had to learn to operate the new piece of equipment in the middle of a rescue. Now, with a camera in each village, he’s hopeful SAR teams will be able to practice using them.
Harrelson hasn’t used one of the cameras yet himself, but said they’ll work sort of like night-vision goggles.
“Any source that gives off any heat will show up like a greenish-yellow spot on the thermal imaging unit,” said Harrelson. “The closer you are to the unit—up to about 400 yards, I believe—you can actually make out the figure of a person if they’re standing there or laying in the snow.”
The cameras are water-resistant and can operate down to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is necessary since many SAR operations are conducted in extreme weather conditions.
“Our searches feel like they come at the most miserable times of the year, where visibility is very limited,” said Harrelson. “You know, when people are traveling from one village to the other, they go out hunting and they fail to make their destination or they fail to come back home. So a lot of out searches are in the wintertime.”
Harrelson anticipates the cameras will make an appearance during annual VPSO training, this year in Anchorage in November. That’ll be an opportunity for officers outside Norton Sound to check out the new tools.
“Our coordinator indicated that maybe we’ll take one of these units down and do some hands-on training while we’re in Anchorage. It’ll also let the other VPSOs know, from the different regions throughout the state, that this equipment’s available and maybe it’s something they can pursue for their own region as well,” said Harrelson.
NSEDC’s donation is worth about $150,000 for the 16 cameras. Harrelson said the cameras should arrive in villages within the next couple of weeks.