Finding Hidden Fires

When my kids were younger, they played hide-and-seek in our house using a thermal imager (yes, my kids get to play with thermal imagers). At the time, my daughter was 9 years old and my son was 4 and the way this would play out was consistent and...


When my kids were younger, they played hide-and-seek in our house using a thermal imager (yes, my kids get to play with thermal imagers). At the time, my daughter was 9 years old and my son was 4 and the way this would play out was consistent and inevitable. My daughter would hide her eyes...


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An Ohio fire department received a call to a 6,500-square-foot residence for the smell of smoke. Once on scene, the firefighter also detected the smell, but given the absence of smoke and the size of the house, they decided to deploy several crews with thermal imagers to survey walls and ceilings. One of the fire crews quickly located a hot spot on the ceiling of the lower floor. This hot spot was well defined along its length (contained by the floor joists from the floor above) and diffused along its ends (uncontained). Firefighters brought in a large salvage tarp and a handline. They then pulled the ceiling in the area of the heat signature, exposing what had been a smoldering fire near an electrical box. The fire was quickly extinguished and damage was contained to four-by-four-foot area. A $2 million home with $3,000 worth of damage.

Proper Use

Each of the success stories above demonstrates how proper use of a TI can lead to saving time and preserving property. Proper use is the key, however. Remember that the TI does not "see through" most materials. It shows that the hidden fire has warmed the surface material in comparison to the rest of the building. In order to properly use your thermal imager in these types of size ups, you must:

  • Use the thermal imager to compare areas or buildings, noting odd areas of heat accumulation
  • Use these comparisons to formulate a logical explanation for what is being displayed on the TI
  • Gain an understanding of building construction and materials and how they may retain or hide heat
  • Understand how environmental issues, including the sun, boiler rooms and other high-heat sources, can affect the thermal signature of a building and its components
  • Verify, when at all possible, suspected problem areas with traditional investigative means (small inspection holes, feeling with a hand for heat, etc.)
  • Not use the thermal image as the sole basis for believing that a heat source indicates a hidden fire

Conclusions

Hidden fires pose numerous challenges and dangers. Finding these smoldering dangers frequently involves numerous inspection holes or merely waiting for the fire to break into the open. By properly using thermal imagers, firefighters can locate these fires faster, saving themselves tremendous amounts of time and energy. Prompt identification of a hidden fire also can result in significant property savings, as the fire is extinguished with less water and with less damage by fire, smoke and firefighters.

Back to hide-and-seek. What was my daughter doing differently? She had discovered that she could locate the footprints that my son left behind when he went to hide so no matter where he was or how long she counted, all my daughter had to do was turn around and follow the footprints. Eventually, my son caught onto this little trick and the game of hide-and-seek was no longer fun for either of them and they stopped playing altogether.

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.