The Many Uses for the Thermal Imager


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.

Structure Fires

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.

Firefighter Safety

At any incident, a thermal imager may enhance firefighter safety. One prominent capability related to safety is that the thermal imager helps the firefighter monitor structural integrity in low visibility. The imager may confirm that a building has truss-roof construction, it may show damaged or missing trusses and it will help firefighters identify holes in the flooring or high heat below them. With proper training, firefighters can even identify the thermal layer and recognize pre-flashover conditions, avoiding injury by "seeing" the danger coming before it happens.

  • Accountability — The ability to keep track of one another in a smoke-filled environment is another important safety benefit. It is far too easy to become separated and disoriented inside a burning structure. A thermal imager can help to keep the crew in contact with one another and look out for one another when things become hectic or the unforeseen occurs.

Creative Applications

  • Wildland firefighting — Outdoors, thermal imagers can monitor personnel and vehicles to provide safety from fire as well as from vehicles moving in poor visibility. From an elevated position, a thermal imager can help determine the exact fire line and monitor hot spots. This information aids in the deployment of resources and assists in accountability.
  • Hazardous materials — A hazmat incident can be an excellent opportunity to use a thermal imager. The vapor space above a material often creates temperature differences that can be detected on the outside of a container. A hazmat team can then identify the level of a liquid or solid material held in a container. These differences could allow the hazmat team to monitor or evaluate an incident that involves a sealed or pressurized container, such as a tanker trailer or propane tank.

    The hazmat team can also use a thermal imager to identify a spilled material, since it will likely have a different temperature than the ground or water on which it is spilled. This temperature difference makes it traceable and visible with the thermal imager. In the right circumstances, concentrated gases may even be visible to the thermal imager.

  • EMS — Most fire departments respond to many more emergency medical calls than fires. They can use a thermal imager to help any time the human eye fails. At vehicle accidents, a thermal imager could help find ejected victims, even in heavy fog or at night. You could use a thermal imager to help rule out that a child safety seat was occupied prior to an accident.


There are many other uses. Thermal imaging restores a firefighter's sense of sight in the thickest smoke or darkest environment, with capabilities limited only by the creativity of the firefighter. Thermal imagers have proven themselves as critical tools for fire departments around the world. They offer tremendous advantages to firefighters in a variety of environments.

If you do not own a thermal imager, please seriously consider how it might help. If you do own a thermal imager, please make sure that you are getting the most bang for your buck. In order for a thermal imager to help protect a firefighter, it must be present. It cannot be "not in the budget" or still on the truck. It must be in a firefighter's hand doing the job it was meant to do. Your firefighters deserve nothing less.

BRAD HARVEY is the Thermal Imaging Product Manager at Bullard. He is a veteran of public safety as a firefighter, police officer and paramedic and is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor. Harvey has worked as a high-angle rescue instructor and is a certified rescue technician and fire instructor. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you may e-mail him at