When evaluating a thermal imager (TI), standardization is a common concern. It is much easier to manage training when all of the thermal imagers in a given fire department function the same way. When the imagers turn on the same way, colorize the same way, have batteries that change the same way and are interchangeable, then training is simplified and comfort with the product increases.
Standardization is a great idea; however, specialization is another issue altogether. Imager operation should be standardized so that, once trained, a firefighter can operate any TI that department owns, but specialization takes a standardized imager and adapts it to the task it is expected to perform. This adaptation is accomplished with accessories.
• Fire suppression — So what does a structural firefighter need in a thermal imager? In a word, portability. Firefighters engaged in the designated task of structural firefighting must have a thermal imager for simple navigation and fire location, but due to the intense physical nature of this task, they typically use the TI very little. Most structural firefighters need the smallest, functional TI they can get and accessorize with a retractable lanyard that lets the imager hang from turnout gear, out of the way until needed. In considering the strap, you should evaluate two things. Is it strong enough to hold the imager in the stowed position? Does it have an internal breakaway that will prevent a firefighter from being hung up with the imager/strap combo?
A transmitter is also a nice feature for a suppression crew. The transmitter is not going to help the suppression crew at all; however, it can be of assistance to the incident command, rapid intervention team (RIT), EMS crews, safety officers and others. The transmitter relays what the suppression crew is doing and what conditions they are encountering. If the EMS crew has a receiver and they observe the suppression crews locating a victim, the EMS crew not only "sees" that they are about to receive a patient, but the patient assessment can begin at that point. What can they determine from transmitted imagery? They can tell whether the victim is a child or an adult. They can tell whether the victim is conscious and moving or conscious enough to assist the crew in the rescue operation. They can determine how close the victim was to the fire.
• RIT operations — The first rule here is to make sure your RIT has a thermal imager. I have worked with many departments that do not consider a TI as an essential part of the RIT cache. This is usually because they think the odds of needing RIT are so small that it does not make sense to equip them with a TI. This is of course poor logic; however, this is likely a topic for another column.
Assuming that the interior crews are equipped with transmitters, the RIT should be equipped with a portable, multi-channel receiver. Having access to the transmitted thermal imagery from inside the structure lets the RIT pre-plan. They can observe the layout of the structure, where in the structure crews are operating, what tasks they are performing and what types of conditions they are encountering. In the event of a Mayday, the RIT already has an idea where the crew is located and even possibly what happened. If the crew is trying to self-rescue, the RIT team can see this in real time. The receiver should be portable so that the RIT can take it into the structure with them to continuously monitor the crew in need of rescue. The RIT should also be equipped with a transmitter so that the progress of the rescue can be monitored by command and EMS.
• Hazardous materials — Thermal imaging in hazmat operations has been a growing specialty over the past several years. Hazmat teams should consider digital zoom for their imagers. Digital zoom allows for a size-up while maintaining distance, which can be a definite safety advantage.
Getting information from the "hot zone" to incident command can be enhanced with the use of a transmitter. Transmission distances can vary greatly and it is certainly possible to have a cold zone, which is too far away for transmission to be realistic but in many situations the transmitter is a great way to keep information flowing in real time.
A still image or video capture device will also aid in documentation. The ability to capture and archive imagery taken from the scene can serve multiple purposes including evidence preservation, documentation and training. Ideally, the captured images would have a time/date stamp to ensure accuracy of the records.
One caveat to hazmat: No thermal imager currently manufactured for firefighting is intrinsically safe. The same condition applies to accessories. When working in atmospheres where the need for intrinsic safety exists, you should not use your thermal imager.
• Disaster preparedness — Thermal imagers can serve a multitude of purposes after a natural disaster. Whether it is identifying downed power lines, searching for victims or simply as a night-vision tool, your TI is a valuable asset in these situations; however, after many natural disasters, electrical power can be difficult to come by and extended deployments are certainly possible. If you live in an area prone to hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes or other potential natural disasters, consider acquiring an alkaline battery option for your TI. This would eliminate the need for recharging and let you simply swap dead batteries with fresh batteries.
Obviously, there are many other uses for accessories than I have listed here. In fact, the possibilities are really only limited by your imagination. If you already own thermal imagers or are considering purchasing, be sure to evaluate the accessory offering that is available. Standardization of operation should be a primary consideration, but specialization should also be considered. Adapting the TI for the specific task being performed is the best return on your equipment investment.
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.