Owning the Night

Dave and I were sampling LE products throughout the summer, and one of the coolest things we’ve looked at so far is the Flir H-Series thermal imaging camera. The camera provides a 320-×-240 thermal imaging core and gives you the option to record. It’s about the size of a 90s-era video camcorder, so I wouldn’t want to go running and gunning with it in my hand. But the product allows you to see through foliage and camouflage, like the woods, in total darkness, as well as through smoke and dust. In Texas, especially this year, those last two are deal-breakers for night-vision devices.

So as a dedicated, now one-year-veteran police officer, my first priority was to test it in the most rigorous of conditions: I took the product on my family’s annual camping trip in central Vermont. For more than 20 years, a growing group of friends (120 of us) have gone to the woods of Vermont for a weekend of swimming, tree-felling, zip-lines for the kids, bonfires, juggling and the annual talent show. The mid-summer nights in rural Vermont, without a single source of light contamination, were our test bed.
Also, we’re part of a group of parents and godparents of about a dozen teenage boys and girls, who were all learning how to flirt with one another this year. If this isn’t a great scenario in which to test a night-vision device, I don’t know what is.
Seeing Through Tents
We started with looking at tents, and sure enough, we could see when people were inside them (don’t worry, nothing that we couldn’t print in a family magazine). Then we pointed it at the pitch-black woods and caught some hand-holding young couples. Gotcha!

If we were seeking people in the woods, the Flir H-Series would make it clearer than seeing during the day. This is because you only see the heat signatures, so people virtually pop out against the background. 
With the help from a couple of tactical-minded folks there, we also did some testing. We tried hiding behind objects, such as trees, rocks and tents. You can’t see behind solid objects, but you do see people emerging: the tip of their shoes, a stray elbow, etc. We did some chase scenarios, in which people behind obstacles tried numerous ways to see the subject operating the Flir product first. Nothing worked. Even the most experienced tacticians saw that as they inched around the obstacle trying to see the subject, their elbow, foot or the crown of their head glowed for the Flir like ET’s ship coming to take him home. 
We asked those hiding to try blinding the unit using my SureFire E2D-LED Defender and LX2-LumaMax 200-lumen flashlights. But basically the image was a rock solid picture of someone waving at the camera—there wasn’t any of the blinding glare from traditional light-amplification devices that you experience with most night-vision products.
We all had fun touching the ground and viewing our heat-signature handprint. This was visible on the grass or dirt for quite a while after removing your hand. We also tested the different contrast views (white-on-black and vice versa) and zoom features. (Note: A study about heat signatures on ATM keypads1 recently showed that this is in fact a viable way to see what passcode has been typed into a keyboard.)
On Patrol
As fun as the civilian tests were, we wanted to see it in action. So we took it out on patrol in our agency on a night shift, and then called up Lt. Tony Bilbay of the Parker County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office (PCSO), who agreed to give the unit a test on rural patrol out there.
The PCSO had been tracking a group of professional burglars who specialized in hitting tobacco and convenience stores. They worked at night, hitting stores in heavily trafficked areas. Their efficiency was impressive: In one night, video picked up the burglars hitting the store, breaching the door, grabbing the booty and skedaddling in 70 seconds flat.
So the PCSO set up stakeouts using the Flir units. The deputies were very impressed with the clarity of the picture and the contrast, allowing them to easily see when people were there—and when they weren’t. “This blows night vision away,” said one patrol sergeant. 
When the PCSO got a line on the suspects, and began a lengthy pursuit, Deputy Robert Johnson was called in to reinforce the search team. That’s when they used the Flir in a way that we didn’t expect: to identify where the suspects weren’t, so they could narrow down the search area.
“We were closing in, and had two fairly large areas to search—some woods and a large field,” Johnson told us. “The picture on the Flir was clear enough that we could tell that they weren’t in the woods, so we concentrated on the field. We caught two, and they gave up the third guy.”
Johnson, a sergeant and administrators found that usage very interesting: It wasn’t used how one would typically think about night-vision equipment. Rather, it was used it to consolidate the agency’s resources and search more effectively.
Cost & Grants
“It’s a really neat tool,” a deputy told us, “I just wish we had the cash to buy some.” The Flir H-Series isn’t an impulse purchase. At about $8,000 a pop, many agencies will need to look at grants and other alternative funding sources. Cost is much of the downside.
However, here’s a neat tip: If your agency doesn’t have someone at least part time looking into the money available in grants and other equipment funding, you’re not doing your officers any favors at all. These devices are superb at helping protect infrastructure. If you have access to Homeland Security funding, think in terms of your critical facilities and how a device like this would help you. It shouldn’t be hard to justify after that.
High-tech equipment like Flir’s H-Series saves lives, which ultimately saves money. Take PCSO for example: Without the product, they not only would have had to split up their resources, but it would have taken longer to capture the suspects. They also would have risked injury to the deputies, only to repeat this scenario again if the suspects got away. Those are all high costs that the product can help them avoid. Oh, and Flir (of course) has people to help you figure out which grants you might qualify for.      
1. Keaton Mowery K, Meiklejohn S. and Savage S. (2011) “Heat of the Moment: Characterizing the Efficacy of Thermal Camera-Based Attacks.” W00T11: Fifth USENIX Workshop on Offensive Technologies. 8 August 2011. http://www.usenix.org/events/woot11/tech/final_files/Mowery.pdf


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