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Thermal detection cameras are not a silver bullet

July 23, 2024 by Andy Schofield

Andy Schofield, Director of Technology at Reliance High-Tech, expresses his concern about the misinformation surrounding the use of thermal detection cameras as a way to identify those with COVID-19.

With lockdown gradually being eased, organisations are seeking ways to keep building occupants safe and avoid the spread of COVID-19. As one of the key symptoms of COVID-19 is a fever or high temperature, some manufacturers and installers of thermal detection technology have taken this 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 range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

 Opportunity knocks

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 substandard personal protective equipment (PPE). According to Trading Standards, millions of knowingly substandard facemasks and thousands of fake hand sanitisers have been seized at Heathrow since the outbreak.

We all know that times are tough for businesses 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 customers across a range of vertical sectors who, with the best intentions, are desperate to get their organisations up and running. Don’t just take my word for it, 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 overenthusiastic marketing and healthy competition, however, the reality is that this level of distortion could be a matter of life and death.

Promoted as a failsafe way of identifying those with elevated skin surface temperatures, evidence suggests thermal detection cameras are far from a perfect solution for this specific application. Deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, 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 chance of detecting someone is ‘very small’.

In addition to this, recent guidance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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 won’t apply in all countries, it is 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. Thermal detection camera technology certainly has significant potential when specified and configured as part of a broader security infrastructure 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 frontline workers and enable contract 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 reopening of their workplaces following the pandemic to think in terms of four distinct stages: prevention, protection, communication and planning for the future. These will be addressed in greater detail in a forthcoming white paper and 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 is 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 should form part of a wider operational and escalation strategy.

As with anything there is no doubt 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 the correct solution.