Thermal Imagers: What's Your Deployment Model?

There is little doubt that thermal imagers (TIs) save lives. Lifting the veil of thick smoke and restoring sight dramatically reduces search time, improving the odds of rapidly locating and extricating trapped victims. In fact, a study conducted in early 2000 showed residential search times dropped an average of 75% when conducted with a TI. Although TIs were introduced to the fire service in the mid-1990s, adoption has been swift and widespread.

A survey published by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) in 2006 showed that 55% of U.S. fire departments owned at least one TI. This was a dramatic increase over a survey published in 2002 showing that only 24% of departments owned a TI. The USFA states that, "The majority of fire departments (55%) now own thermal imaging cameras, and the majority of those that do not, have plans to acquire them."

This sounds impressive. One could easily construe from reading this report that the majority of firefighters now have access to the technology. Read the statement closely and it says the majority of fire departments, not the majority of firefighters. While thermal imaging continues to become more and more prevalent in the fire service, the level of access becomes the question. How accessible is the TI? If the TI is not immediately accessible, it is far less likely to be used. Search and rescue is one of the first tasks undertaken on a fire scene and if a TI is not present when search operations begin, it cannot contribute to a successful outcome. So the question is — what is the deployment model for your department?

Let's start off by defining "deployment." The website defines it as "to position in readiness for combat. To distribute systematically or strategically." What strategic or systematic choices have you or your department made to position your equipment for combat? Where is the TI currently located and what was the thought process that located it there? The decisions made here affect how that imager will be used, what role it will serve and how you should be training.

There are essentially four levels of TI deployment within the fire service. These different levels are quantified not by the overall volume of imagers owned, but by how deeply ingrained thermal imaging has become within a fire department:

  1. One thermal imager for the entire department — Departments that have adopted this deployment model are typically very small or severely budget-constrained or both. Unless the department is a one-station department with the TI on the first-out piece of apparatus, a "one TI for the department" deployment model will render the TI an afterthought and more of an overhaul tool than a search and rescue tool.
  2. One thermal imager per station — Departments adopting this model are usually attempting to ensure that a TI is present on all fires; however, there are times when the first apparatus to arrive from a given station is not the one equipped with a TI. If the TI is not first to arrive, most of the benefits to any trapped victims have been affected by the delayed arrival. In this deployment model, the TI is often used in search and rescue, but sometimes, due to late arrival, not used until the secondary search.
  3. One thermal imager per apparatus — Departments adopting this deployment model usually value thermal imaging and have made a significant commitment to make sure that a TI is always on the first-to-arrive apparatus. In this deployment model, the TI is intended to be used during primary search and all other fire operations.
  4. One thermal imager per riding position — This is "the next frontier" in thermal imaging. Only a handful of departments have adopted this deployment model. These departments have moved the technology beyond search and rescue and begun to address firefighter disorientation and firefighter safety. Until very recently, the cost associated with this deployment model reserved the "one per firefighter" for the department with the budgetary means and desire to equip every firefighter.

Whatever deployment model your department chooses, it will have a significant effect on how thermal imagers are used and implemented. As you move up in deployment model (from one to four), more money is required, but thermal imaging can be a "force multiplier." When a TI is used to save a life, the payback is immediate.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) now cites thermal imaging in its firefighter line-of-duty-death investigations, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is developing a standard, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working on qualitative and repeatable testing, and manufacturers are always trying to turn out new technology with lower price points, all in an effort to get more TIs into the field.

Thermal imagers are now within the budgetary grasp of every fire department. Falling prices allow for a department without a TI to obtain one, and the department with a TI can advance in the deployment models. As more and more TIs make their way into the fire service, consider what your deployment model says about your intentions and plan strategically as you position your equipment in readiness for combat.

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