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Shelby County gets Homeland Security funds for thermal imaging cameras.

Seven hundred Homeland Security cameras set up around downtown were just the beginning.

The Shelby County Commission recently approved $850,000 in Homeland Security funding to purchase personal protection equipment for first responders, a 4-by-4 truck, thermal imaging cameras, and a hazardous materials identification system.

Chief Clarence Cash Jr. with the Shelby County Fire Department says the $125,000 Haz-Mat ID system is a computer program that enables emergency workers to identify hazardous materials and view information on how best to deal with them.

"We get the info: material composition, wind direction, et cetera. We feed that into the program and proceed from there," he says.

The county - along with the Germantown Fire Department - will also get new thermal imaging cameras. The cameras detect heat and translate different temperatures into color, allowing rescuers to analyze hazards or locate victims.

Assistant Chief John Selberg of the Germantown department says they already use a thermal imaging camera but its larger size is a bit unwieldy. The new model, he says, is smaller and more mobile, similar to a 35-mm camera.

Because the cameras detect heat, emergency personnel can use them for a variety of functions. For example, if there was an electrical fire contained inside a wall, the camera can look through the panel to see if the fire has spread, Selberg says.

"Another main use for the camera is looking for a person trapped in a burning building," Selberg says. "In situations like that, there is often a lot of smoke and visibility is drastically reduced. The camera can look through smoke to spot, say, a child who is hiding."

Homeland Security funds spent at the state level have come under criticism for some questionable purchases. A recent New York Times article cited the purchase of $233,000 worth of emergency equipment and gear - including radio equipment, decontamination tents, headlamps, and even rubber boots - for Northwest Arctic Borough, a 7,300-person community in the Arctic Circle. But local officials don't see it that way.

"Homeland Security has been very helpful in accomplishing our different requests and helping us to be successful," Cash says. n

by Ben Popper

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