Non-Traditional Uses for Thermal Imagers

After spending two months talking about the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard, let's take a look at the lighter side of fire service thermography. Aggressive companies use thermal imagers (TIs) in every phase of a fire, from size-up to overhaul. But for most fire companies, the majority of responses are non-fire incidents. So how do firefighters stay skilled with their TIs? What else can they be used for? The answer is that the potential uses are really only limited by your imagination. This month's column concentrates on creative uses for TIs, with the goal of getting you to think "outside the box" about TI usage.

Remember the Basics

All members must start with an understanding of basic TI operations. The imager collects information regarding the relative heat differences among the objects that it sees. It takes this information and creates a gray-scale image, with the exception of heat indicating color overlays for the user to interpret. The imager relies on the abilities of the user to determine what is being "seen," so all members must be skilled at image interpretation. Some things to keep in mind regarding image interpretation are:

  • Remember that the temperatures indicated by the shades of gray are relative. "White" in an office environment will be a different temperature than "white" in a room with contents on fire.
  • Thermal imagers are not X-ray vision and do not "see through" most objects. In general, they see surfaces only.
  • TIs do not require light to function and will not be affected by lights or lighting levels. The thermal imager uses temperature differences to generate an image. The larger the temperature differences are, the clearer the picture will be.
  • Dense fog, heavy precipitation or condensation on the TI lens may all negatively affect the performance of a TI.
  • The sun can wreak havoc on image interpretation. You need to be aware of the effects of the sun and account for them during your interpretation.

Non-Traditional Uses

I have said it before and I will say it again: the fireground is not the place to practice a new idea. That is what the training ground is for. While some of the ideas listed below are low-risk situations, I will always suggest that you practice any new application before attempting on a fireground. That being said, there are literally dozens of non-fire applications for your thermal imager and the list keeps growing based on the creative mind of the fire service.

  • A police department in Louisiana used the fire department's TI at night to find a suspect hiding in a small river. When the suspect came up for air, the TI detected his head above water. Officers surrounded the area and arrested him.
  • A Missouri fire department used its TI to identify residual heat in the passenger seat of a vehicle involved in a car-versus-tree accident. This led them to search for additional victims other than the driver they had already removed. After a brief search, they located the missing victim in the tree above their heads. The victim had a warrant for his arrest and hid in the tree following the accident. He was highly intoxicated and seriously injured.
  • A law enforcement agency in California used a thermal imager to track chemicals being dumped into a harbor from a houseboat containing a methamphetamine laboratory. The trail of chemicals identified exactly which boat was hiding the meth lab.
  • An Indiana fire department used its thermal imager to find fingers amputated by a lawn mower. The ambulance transported the patient immediately; the engine company searched just minutes and recovered all three fingers with the aid of the TI.
  • An Illinois fire department engaged in overhaul used a TI to identify that manufacturing equipment and steam lines were still active, despite assurances from the facility maintenance staff that they were not. By identifying active equipment, the firefighters avoided working in the area and exposing themselves to potential risks until a senior safety manager finally performed a formal "lock-out/tag-out" of the equipment.
  • A fire department in Michigan conducts home energy audits on pre-set weekends each month as a fundraiser. Residents can sign up for the free scan and firefighters will show them where their home has insulative weaknesses. The resident then makes a donation of their choosing to the fire department.
  • A fire department in Kansas received a call from a motorist that had witnessed a motorcycle leave the roadway at a high rate of speed with two people on the motorcycle. The motorist did not have a cell phone and had to leave the scene of the accident to call for help. The motorist then could not locate the accident scene again and could only say that it happened somewhere within a given two-mile stretch of cornfields. After arriving on scene and searching for some time, the fire department decided to scan the surrounding cornfields to see if the thermal imager could detect the victims. While searching the area, the thermal imager did not locate the victims; however, it did show a single tire track leaving the roadway and entering the cornfield (this was nearly 30 minutes after the reported accident). The firefighters followed the tire mark, visible only with the thermal imager, and quickly located two victims and a motorcycle nearly 50 yards into the corn field. Both victims were unconscious and severely injured.


This list is by no means "complete"; however, the uses are creative and meant to stimulate thought. While firefighters often think of a TI as a "firefighting tool," it clearly has potential applications at a number of emergency incidents. Anytime your eyes are not giving you all of the information you want, or giving the information as rapidly as needed, the TI may assist to make your efforts more successful and less time consuming.

The only way to experience these successes is to practice frequently with the TI and to try using it at almost every incident. It may not always help, but if it does, you will be glad you tried.

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