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Firefighters should be aware that thermal imaging technology is not a replacement for basic tactics. For example, there may be times in mop-up when a thermal imager cannot detect a hidden heat source, such as when the heat exists deep within a tree trunk. There may also be times when the image on a thermal imager appears inconclusive to the user.
Most thermal imagers on the market today were designed to operate inside a structure. These imagers are equipped with a wide field of view so that when entering a residential room, a structural firefighter can see much of the room in one quick glance. While this is a benefit to a structural firefighter, it can serve as a detriment to a wildland firefighter.
The side effect of a wide field of view is a limitation of distance. All thermal imagers have a detection range. This typically defines the size of a heat target – three feet by three feet, for example – and a distance at which the target can be detected. While there are numerous variables to account for, understand that the farther away you are, the more likely it is that something can be missed by a thermal imager. This is not to say that you need to be within a certain distance (handheld thermal imagers are commonly used from the air); rather, you should simply practice with it and get a feel for what the technology is telling you.
Thermal imagers can be used to improve operations in a wide variety of wildland firefighting operations, from the air and on the ground. While the dangers faced by wildland firefighters are different than those faced by structural firefighters, the thermal imager is a tool that can benefit firefighters in both types of incidents. By first understanding how a thermal imager can be employed during a wildfire response, then practicing with it on a regular basis, firefighters can improve their personal safety as well as team effectiveness. Remember the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watch Out Situations (http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/safety/10_18/10_18.html) are the bible of wildland firefighting and thermal imagers should only be used to enhance the decision-making process.