Thermal Imaging and Firefighter Safety: A Winning Combination

The day I began to write this column, 105 firefighters had been killed in the line of duty in 2007. There has never been more attention and resources directed toward the issue of firefighter safety as there were in 2007. Yet, the number of those killed is going up. Why is this?

There are a multitude of reasons why firefighters continue to die in the line of duty and likely always will be. New technologies or new applications of existing technologies can help reduce unnecessary risk. Notice I said unnecessary. Yes, I am aware that some risk is necessary, which is why I can accept the fact that as long as firefighters enter burning buildings in the fight to preserve life and property, there will be firefighter deaths. As I assume the responsibilities of writing this column, I want us all to focus on the issue of firefighter safety and how using a thermal imager (TI) can help lower the number of firefighters killed each year.

Your thermal imager can play a major part in safety and fatality prevention with its many uses. Yes, it's true; you can use a TI to check the propane level in the cylinder attached to your fire department's grill. It is also true that a thermal imager can see body filler buried beneath the paint on that used car you intend to buy. You can use it to assess ventilation, investigate electrical odors and direct fire streams during direct attack operations. However, the highest calling for a thermal imager is its use to preserve life. Be that a firefighter or civilian, the return on investment comes when someone gets to live another day because the TI was there and used effectively. Your TI can be used for size-up, search and rescue, overhaul and much more, all of which when performed effectively can help increase firefighter safety and lower fatalities.

The TI is an amazing tool that has given firefighters the capability to see in smoke. Few things have changed the fire service like the thermal imager. Sure, at one point we transitioned from buckets to hoses and pumps, from rubber coats to modern bunker gear, and from black lung to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). These tools gave us the ability to work longer, more efficiently and deeper into the hot, smoke environment. However, all of these breakthroughs have been hampered by the absence of sight, which brings us to the thermal imager. Not only does it restore sight, but gives the user super power to some extent — the ability to see heat. If you understand what you are seeing, you can use the information to adapt your tactics to the rapidly changing environment commonly found inside a burning structure.

Today's thermal imagers provide images clear enough to be mistaken for a black-and-white video camera. This clarity can lead to improved safety and increased efficiency. Increased efficiency translates to faster suppression times and reduced time-at-risk. Reduced time-at-risk can lead directly to reduced injuries and fatalities. This is a critical chain. If you notice, this chain begins with owning and understanding a thermal imager.

It's not as simple as "turn it on, and now you can see." In order to take full advance of your TI, you need to understand what it is showing you. Understand what it is trying to tell you. It can be done; it just takes understanding and practice. That is exactly what I am aiming for here. I want you to understand and practice thermal imaging. Practice using the TI for different applications so that when you do arrive on a fire scene, you'll know just what to do with your TI and how to do it effectively. If you do, I am certain that your fire scenes will become safer.

I know this month's column didn't get into the nitty-gritty of thermal imaging. Believe me, from this point forward it will, but I thought it appropriate to set the stage for what is to come. Over the next few months, we will explore exactly how your TI can help to protect firefighters from previously unforeseen dangers. We will talk about things like firefighter disorientation, personnel accountability, training, search and rescue, structural integrity assessment and other topics while paying close attention to the role of the TI.

The issue of fire safety and fatality prevention is personal for me. You need to know where my heart is so that you understand what it is I fight for. One thing I have never been accused of is being dispassionate. If you have ever watched a comrade being lowered into a six-foot hole while his grieving wife clutches a folded flag, the honor guard salutes, the bagpiper retreats and the bell tolls for the last time…you understand where I am coming from. That's the thing about this family; one of us dies — 1.1 million of us grieve. It has to stop.

If you have a story of a close call where the thermal imager made a difference, I would like to hear about it. Please e-mail me at and tell me the story. I may use it in upcoming columns to illustrate a point or application. Sharing your story may help others in avoiding a story of their own.

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