Thermal Imager SOGs: Key Points for Development

Making Every Emergency Operation Smoother and Safer

Standard operating guidelines (SOGs) have become the mainstay of many public safety agencies. Many fire departments have extensive SOGs covering a wide array of situations, call types, uniform requirements and equipment operation. Your thermal imager should not be left out.

Developing comprehensive SOGs for your fire department that include where you will mount and store your TI and how standard maintenance procedures will be handled is important. The SOGs for your thermal imager must specify who is expected to carry the tool, and it should identify key aspects of how a search should be performed with the tool.

  • Where will the TI be stored? Experience regularly shows that TI usage is tied to the time of arrival, not the frequency of arrival. In other words, if the TI doesn't arrive at the beginning of an incident, it probably will not be used. Consider placing Tis on the busiest first-due fire companies. Chances are, more frequent use benefits your citizens as well as your firefighters.

    Once you clarify which rigs will carry the Tis, you must choose where they will be located on those rigs. Thermal imagers stored in hard cases, in a compartment, covered by other tools, will stay there -- forever, or at least until the rookie asks his officer what the black case is for. Thermal imagers get the most use when they are in the cab with the company members.

    To ensure the greatest potential for use, your SOGs need to specify where the TI will be mounted in the cab. Most manufacturers offer some type of a truck mount system that will not only retain the imager in the cab, but will charge the battery while it is in the TI. Buy this system for your TI. With the TI easy to see and easy to reach, you improve the chances that the tool will be carried off the rig and put to use.

  • Who will be responsible for carrying the TI at incidents? Once an SOG has specified where the TI will be located, it should specify who is responsible for it. While he or she is responsible for the company, he or she may not be responsible for the individual tool at an incident. The thermal imager, as a tool, can be assigned to the firefighter who makes sense for your system. To make life easier, make sure your TI placement is related directly to which firefighter is responsible for carrying the thermal imager.

    Seat assignments improve efficiency with any tool. By assigning specific roles and specific tools to each seat on the apparatus, you ensure that all of the critical tools you need are brought into the incident immediately. The process eliminates confusion about who should bring what, and more importantly it verifies that you will have all of your primary tools with you when you enter an incident.

  • What are the maintenance procedures? The primary consideration for TI maintenance revolves around the battery. Your SOGs should specifically address battery changes, battery charging and battery life. Work with your TI manufacturer to develop a change-out policy that ensures consistent operation.

    Several key points must be addressed in your SOGs. First, plan the exercise cycle. Even though the batteries are sold as "no-memory" batteries, they still require exercise to optimize performance. If your manufacturer does not offer a suggestion, plan on fully charging, fully draining and fully recharging TI batteries monthly. Second, develop a regular replacement plan for your rechargeable batteries. Unless your manufacturer tells you differently, replace the batteries every 18 to 36 months, depending on usage.

    You should define all of these issues in your SOGs to ensure that the system is adopted and enforced universally. If you rely on individual officers and leave the decisions to them, you will have as many systems as you have officers. Get everyone on the same page to help ensure that the batteries work for each shift, on every single call.

  • How are searches performed? Your SOG should clarify the scanning pattern that firefighters will use to get a full view of the entire room or area. To do a complete search, you must scan from shoulder-to-shoulder, high-middle-low.

You should also codify how the thermal imager will assist a search team or help manage the process of the search. The two most common systems are to send the TI into the room with the firefighter or to leave the TI in the hall with the partner. If the firefighter with the TI enters the room to do a search, a partner stays at the door as a reference point. Otherwise, the TI is used from the hallway to monitor conditions and the progress of the searching firefighter, who enters the room blind.

Beds can wreak havoc on thermal imaging interpretation. Your SOGs should specify that beds are always checked by hand, regardless of what the TI indicates. If your TI shows what appears to be a bed, the SOG should require that a firefighter search the top and underneath the bed by hand, then pull the bed from the wall to ensure no one is wedged between the wall and the mattress.

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