Five “Don’ts” of Thermal Imaging

  As thermal imaging becomes a more integrated part of normal fireground operations, more applications are discovered, more techniques are developed, new knowledge is gained and, ultimately, more need for training is created. While this speaks...


  As thermal imaging becomes a more integrated part of normal fireground operations, more applications are discovered, more techniques are developed, new knowledge is gained and, ultimately, more need for training is created. While this speaks volumes about the value of the technology...


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When firefighters train in non-fire environments, humans are always displayed as white as people are typically warmer than their environment. The problem is that structure fires are not ambient environments, and a search for a victim may be performed in rooms where surface temperatures can exceed the heat of a person or more. This means that when firefighters are searching in actual emergencies, humans may not be the hottest items in the room!

Back to basics ? During thermal imager training, firefighters should be constantly reminded that a human may show as white in a cool environment, gray in a warm environment or black in a heated environment. When training in ambient environments, consider using rescue dummies to help reduce the “hot” profile, and encourage the identification of “victims” by shape. If you have infant rescue manikins, you can even place them in a refrigerator or freezer for a time prior to training in order to change their appearance on screen. Train on shape, not on shade when practicing search techniques.

4. Don’t have unrealistic expectations. No tool can perform every task. Some might argue that the halligan bar can do anything, but even this multi-purpose tool has limitations. The thermal imager, just like every other tool in the fire service, has limitations.

Thermal imagers do not “see through” buildings or people. One cannot “look” through walls, floors or major obstructions to find victims. (Thin obstructions, such as blankets or single sheets of paneling, may receive enough conducted heat from a victim to show a difference in surface temperature. Do not confuse conducted heat transfer with “seeing through” an object.)

While glass is transparent to light, it is nearly opaque to infrared. The same is true with water. During exterior size-up efforts, thermal imagers cannot be used to see through closed windows to find victims or to directly observe fire conditions. Inside a structure, an activated sprinkler head may appear as a black cone showering down, masking nearby victims or fire from the thermal imager.

Back to basics ? Use your thermal imager as frequently as possible to familiarize yourself with these limitations.

5: Don’t forget the basics of firefighting. If there were only one “Don’t,” this would be it. You absolutely, positively must remain proficient at all the skills you learned before your department purchased thermal imagers. Thermal imaging is a valuable technological tool; however, thermal imagers will not put out the fire. Firefighters need to engage in solid, fundamental firefighting to ensure their own safety and the proper completion of their goals.

Back to basics ? While the thermal imager will make search efforts easier and faster, it should not supplant the standard practice of right- or left-hand search patterns to maintain orientation. While the thermal imager helps to monitor structural integrity, it cannot see hidden trusses, nor can it make compromised trusses carry their loads longer. Firefighters still need to be aware of the structural limitations of a building and the dangers therein. Stick with the basics of firefighting and enhance, not replace, those skills with a thermal imager.

In conclusion, don’t become overwhelmed with all of the things you can do with a thermal imager; rather, stay focused on what you should be doing (and not doing) in order to improve your odds of success, operate more efficiently and, most importantly, stay safe.

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 brad_harvey@bullard.com.