Aerial Operations And Your Thermal Imager

Your thermal imager can be used for a variety of call types. I think, at this point, everyone knows that a thermal imager can be used for interior fire operations and direct fire-suppression activities. This month, we will talk about a non-traditional, exterior application that often gets overlooked. We will focus on how a thermal imager can help the average truck company member when it comes to issues of placement. Where to put the apparatus, where to put the aerial, where to put the vent hole and where to put the master stream are all issues faced by the truck company. The topic of placement can be a critical one as hazards, safety, scene coordination and overall effectiveness are impacted. Here are a few situations where your thermal imager can help with placement decisions.

Apparatus and aerial placement. Upon arrival on scene, selecting the most appropriate spot for the apparatus and aerial depend on many factors. Type of structure, building construction, area of involvement, ground type, ground obstructions, access point and other factors play into the decision of the operator as to where to place the vehicle; however, one of the greatest concerns with apparatus placement is the presence and location of overhead electrical lines. Inadvertent contact with overhead electrical lines can have catastrophic consequences for anyone on or touching the apparatus. In the dead of night, power lines can be difficult to spot, even with a flashlight. Add inclement weather and it can be harder yet. Your thermal imager can help.

Electricity generates heat as it travels along an electrical line. This heat stands out to a thermal imager and makes power lines very easy to locate, even at a distance. In the photo above, you can clearly identify the power lines running through the top portion of the image. This is something that you can practice with right there at the station. You do not have to go far to locate power lines to look at.

One note while we are on the topic: Your thermal imager should not be used to determine whether downed lines are energized. I am asked this question frequently and the truth is there are too many opportunities for false positives as well as false negatives and the consequences of a wrong decision are simply too high. Although the thermal imager can provide reliable identification of the presence of power lines, it should not be used to evaluate energized vs. non-energized.

Ventilation placement. Although departments may vary on the accepted location and size of a vertical ventilation hole, most commonly use the "highest center point" as a guideline unless other information is available. Well, other information is available. Your thermal imager can be used to indicate the warmest area of the roof, indicating the area of the roof where the heat is naturally collecting. If you are riding the bucket on the way up, simply look at the roof from the elevated position with your thermal imager and what you should notice is an area of the roof that is warmer than the rest. This difference can range from very subtle to extremely obvious.

If insufficient heat has accumulated, there may be no discernible temperature difference; however, if you notice that one area of the roof is warmer than another and that location is supported by visible fire conditions, you may be able to move the ventilation hole to the most appropriate place rather than just high and center. Venting the heat at the point of natural accumulation is usually the quickest way to get the heat out of the building.

Aerial stream placement. Elevated master streams are obviously not an every-fire tool. They are often employed in an effort to get water to an upper floor or to send water down through a self-ventilated roof. Either way, the elevated masters usually come out only when the big guns are needed — lots of fire, lots of smoke and lots of guessing on stream placement. Many times, operators are left to direct the stream blindly into the smoke in the hopes that it finds something hot; however, put a thermal imager in the bucket or at the ladder tip and now you have precision aim.

Are you flowing water into the fourth-floor window? Use the thermal imager to direct the placement as well as to select stream type and flow rate necessary to make it to the red stuff. The same concept applies to aerial deluge of a self-ventilated building. You can use the thermal imager to place the stream with pinpoint accuracy and get the water exactly where it needs to go. No more guessing involved. Operations will be quicker and more efficient while using less water.

In conclusion, although many departments relegate their thermal imager to the job of interior fire suppression, the tool is valuable in a variety of situations. In fact, many of the applications are limited only by your thinking. As your thinking expands, so do the uses for your thermal imager. As with any new skill or application, I encourage you to practice and train first. The fire scene is no place to try something for the first time. That being said, it is only through training and experimentation that the full value and applicability of your thermal imager will be realized.

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