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Thermal Detection Cameras: Beware the Claims of Silver Bullets

05 June 2020

WITH LOCKDOWN now gradually being eased, organisations across many sectors are seeking ways in which to keep building occupants safe and avoid the spread of COVID-19. Here, Andy Schofield expresses his concern about the “misinformation” surrounding the use of thermal detection cameras as a way of identifying those individuals harbouring the Coronavirus.

As one of the key symptoms of COVID-19 is a fever or high temperature, some manufacturers and installers of thermal detection technology have used the Coronavirus situation as an opportunity to make some extremely bold claims on behalf of this type of equipment. Technology can certainly assist. Unfortunately, though, some of the claims being made range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Despite all the acts of bravery, generosity and kindness shown during this pandemic, some unscrupulous companies and individuals have used the fear and panic it has created to make a quick buck by, for example, producing sub-standard personal protective equipment. According to Trading Standards, millions of knowingly sub-standard face masks and thousands of fake hand sanitisers have been seized at Heathrow Airport since the Coronavirus outbreak.

We all know that times are tough for businesses across all of the traditional vertical markets, but the fact that this level of exploitation and deceit has potentially permeated into the security industry is cause for concern. Thermal detection cameras are being marketed and (mis)sold to end user customers across a range of vertical sectors who, with the best of intentions, are desperate to have their organisations up-and-running again. Don’t just take my word for it, though. A cursory Google search for ‘fever detection camera’ will find numerous companies providing this ‘service’.

Scratching the surface

What you can also find, without too much difficulty, are reports of fake marketing, dubious performance claims and a plethora of Coronavirus-related misinformation that is simply designed to increase sales. Were the situation not so serious then it could be put down to over-enthusiastic marketing and healthy competition. However, the reality is that this level of distortion could be a matter of life and death.

Promoted as a fail-safe way of identifying those with elevated skin surface temperatures, evidence suggests thermal detection cameras are far from a perfect solution for this specific application. Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, is on record as saying: “Temperature screening provides little more than a reassurance mechanism for the public” and goes on to comment that, even with “reliable kit”, the chances of detecting someone who harbours the Coronavirus are “very small”.

In addition to this, recent guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration states that thermal detection cameras can be classed as medical devices if they are being used to diagnose illnesses. This means that such technology must be approved and, while this will not apply in all countries, it’s a useful indication of the legal classification that could apply elsewhere.

Some manufacturers have taken to issuing disclaimers stating that their products are not medical devices and not meant to diagnose disease. However, that’s irrelevant as the issue concerns the intended use of the product, not the marketing spin.

Keeping it real

At Reliance High-Tech, we’ve become increasingly concerned about this situation. When specified and configured as part of a broader security infrastructure, thermal detection camera technology certainly has significant potential to identify individuals who may have a raised temperature, but there are other serious considerations. Environmental and operational factors such as ambient temperature, warm-up times, flow of people traffic and the wearing of glasses can significantly affect the accuracy of a result.

We also recommend that any technical implementation is paired with an associated operating process for optimal identification of body temperature, as well as people management and track and trace, to support any alerts. Where possible, additional technologies such as body-worn video, access control and video analytics should be used to protect front line workers and enable contact tracing and social distancing to be maintained.

Of course, having the correct procedures in place is just as important as the technology itself. At Reliance High-Tech, we encourage clients who are planning the re-opening of their workplaces to think in terms of four distinct stages: prevention, protection, communication and planning (for the future). These stages will be addressed in greater detail in a forthcoming White Paper and, indeed, a webinar.

Part of the picture

Thermal detection has an important part to play in a properly designed, specified and implemented security system. However, it’s not the answer to all our prayers when it comes to detecting those with COVID-19. It only has value when sited and implemented correctly and, ultimately, should form part of a wider operational and escalation strategy.

There appears to be a mixture of misinformation, a lack of understanding and sharp practices at play here. With so much at stake, we as an industry need to ensure that we offer sound advice and, importantly, the correct solution.

Andy Schofield is Director of Technology at Reliance High-Tech