Make thermal imaging a topic at every training session.
November and December always seem to be busy months in the request department. Every year, it seems I get inundated with messages from training officers setting the upcoming year's training schedule and looking for ideas for thermal imaging training or the simple fact that colder weather leads to more indoor, lecture-based training. The most frequent requests I receive are for technical information or Power-Point support. Very rarely do I get asked something like, "How can I use a thermal imager during size-up?" or, "How can I use a thermal imager during vertical ventilation?" Why is this?
I spoke with an instructor at a large metropolitan department the other day who was relaying a situation he had encountered as a member of the department's water rescue team. He described being assigned to a bridge downstream from where two swimmers were thought to have entered a swollen stream after heavy rains. It was dark outside and a steady rain continued to fall. He described their attempts to get enough light onto the water below to effectively monitor for a passing victim. I asked him whether they used their thermal imager. He stared at me for a second before responding, "I never thought of that!"
I know this individual well. He can thoroughly explain very complicated technical aspects of thermal imaging. In fact, he is one of the most knowledgeable firefighters I know when it comes to the technology. He is an advocate for thermal imaging and his department has used it almost since the very beginning, yet he never thought to deploy the thermal imager in this situation. Why, you ask? The answer is simple — despite his advanced knowledge, the thermal imager was never integrated into the water rescue operations.
The prevailing approach seems to be, if a department conducts thermal imaging training at all, to set aside one or more trainings each year that focus on thermal imaging. These sessions often seem to spend a large portion of the training time on many of the technical aspects of the imager, such as detector sensitivity and gain states, and a relatively small portion of the time on myriad applications. The predominant attitude toward training seems to be, "put all of the firefighters in a room and explain all of the technical aspects so that these firefighters truly understand how the technology works because if they understand how it works, they will know when to use it." My question is simple, "How's that working for you?"
This approach dominated thermal imaging training for years. Articles, books, conference lectures and manufacturer training all seemed to focus on the technical, but thermal imagers have evolved so far in such a short period that many of these things are no longer relevant. The technical aspects change so rapidly that technical training can often be dated within 12 months, but what is the goal of training? Is it a better understanding of Noise Equivalent Temperature Difference of the pixels in the detector or is it wider, safer implementation on the fireground? There is a better approach.
Rather than set thermal imaging aside as a separate topic, I would suggest you go to the other extreme. Make thermal imaging a topic at every training session. Are you training on forcible entry? Include the thermal imager. Are you training on primary searches? Include the thermal imager. Are you training on water rescue? Include the thermal imager. Start treating the thermal imager as if it actually belongs in the standard-issue toolbox.
Now, before the hate mail begins, let me be clear about what I am suggesting and not suggesting. I am not suggesting that you forego traditional training in favor of the thermal imager. If you read this column consistently, you will know that I have never been an advocate for that. What I am suggesting, however, is that you set aside some portion of the training to discuss and integrate thermal imaging. Let's say you plan to spend 90 minutes training on vertical ventilation and you are using the EDI (Explain, Demonstrate, Imitate) method. Your instructional plan consists of 20 minutes of Explain, one evolution of Demonstrate and three evolutions per group of Imitate. Now, I would spend the last three to five minutes of Explain on thermal imaging, integrate thermal imaging to the Demonstrate, and integrate it to the second and third evolutions of Imitate. If a crew were to show particular deficiency in the basics of vertical ventilation during the first evolution, then delay the thermal imaging integration until the third evolution because you should keep one thing very clear — thermal imaging is to enhance basic operations, not replace them.
The only way thermal imaging will ever become integrated on the fireground is if it is first integrated on the training ground. "Train like you fight, and fight like you train." If this motto works for the U.S. military (a big shout out for those serving and defending our country) why do we think it would not work for the U.S. fire service?
The thermal imager must become an integrated part of fireground operations and that will not happen when thermal imaging training is segregated. Lack of integration leads to less efficient operations at best and far more tragic consequences at worst. Several times in the past year, firefighters have been lost to unseen fire or structural conditions while the thermal imager rested comfortably in the vehicle charger; never touched.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is citing the use or lack of use of the thermal imager in its firefighter line-of-duty-death investigations. If you strive to integrate for no other reason, do it in an effort to protect a firefighter. We are losing far too many every year.
Until next time, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.