The fire service is always looking for innovative ways to do its job more effectively. Based on its rapid growth, thermal imaging appears to be one of the fastest-growing innovations when it comes to reduced time and increased efficiency.
While interest in thermal imaging continues to expand, there are still many departments that have yet to purchase their first thermal imager. While lack of funding is an often-cited reason for not owning a thermal imager, the much more likely cause is a lack of perceived value. When a piece of equipment is seen as essential or invaluable to the business of fighting fires, departments seem to find a way to own it. When it comes to thermal imaging, many departments still see it as a luxury rather than a necessity.
This column will explore various uses and applications for thermal imagers. If you already own one, read on. You might learn something new. If you don’t already own a thermal imager, consider the value proposition of each use. Also, take into consideration that prices are falling to the point that you can get a basic thermal imager that will accomplish all of the below tasks for less than $5,000.
The most obvious use for a thermal imager is a structure fire, but to sum up the value at a structure fire as being able to “see through smoke” overlooks many of the other potential uses.
• Size-up – Whether during a “walk-around” or when performing a three-sided approach, conducting a size-up with the assistance of a thermal imager may give the officer additional information not available to the human eye. This information could be areas of heat buildup, location of electric lines or visibility of the structure at times of excessive smoke conditions.
• Fire attack – If the hose team uses a thermal imager while advancing its line, it can find its way to the seat of the fire more quickly. Because the team can see walls and objects using the thermal imager, the members can navigate faster and with greater ease and improved safety. In heavy smoke, the suppression company can identify convected heat flow to trace to the seat of the fire as well as keep track of thermal stratification within the residence. The company could also find access to upper and lower levels more quickly while keeping track of secondary means of egress should that become necessary.
• Ventilation – Another aspect where a thermal imager can assist is in identifying where and when to ventilate. At larger structures, the thermal imager can help firefighters ensure that any ventilation holes in the roof are near the areas of highest heat. Additionally, the thermal imager may help identify compromised roofing before a company is committed to the roof. Because superheated gases are visible on most thermal imagers, the technology can help firefighters verify that a vertical ventilation point is performing properly and assist in differentiating heated smoke from steam.
• Search and rescue – If a value proposition were ever made, it must be made here. Independent studies have shown that thermal imagers improve search speeds by up to 75% and can more than double search success rates. While search and rescue may be the most frequently discussed application, it may be the least frequently used. Many fire departments do not have enough thermal imagers or have placed them in areas that are hard to access. Often, departments keep their sole thermal imager on the one truck that goes to every fire, such as a squad or ladder. By the time this company arrives, the primary searches are already underway. Thermal imagers stored in compartments most likely will stay in compartments until overhaul, when the tools in that compartment are needed. To have an effect on search and rescue efforts, the thermal imagers must arrive early and they must come off the apparatus with the firefighters.
• Overhaul – The thermal imager can identify hot spots to help focus overhaul efforts, limiting collateral damage. Focused efforts also ensure that firefighters use their energy efficiently while greatly reducing overall on-scene time.