Thermal Imaging For the Incident Commander

The job of an incident commander (IC) can be a trying one. Coordinating a scene full of firefighters and apparatus and performing a multitude of tasks in a life-threatening situation can make most people consider doing something else. Add being responsible for the safety of all involved, and you may wonder how an IC can be successful at performing such duties. Accurate, timely and reliable information is the answer and the backbone of a successful incident commander and your thermal imager (TI) can help. In this column, we look at various types of incidents where a TI can provide valuable information to the IC. You'll find that the TI can serve as a "big-picture" tool to assess a scene as a whole, making the IC's job easier.

Structure Fires

Using a TI for scene size-up and assessment can provide the IC with additional information. From the IC's vantage point, the TI can offer clues such as areas of heat buildup and ventilation routes. In Image 1, a view of the outside of the structure reveals smoke coming from the eaves and the gable end of the roof area. However, when evaluated with the TI (Image 2), several key indicators can be seen. As you look at the windows of the structure from left to right, you notice a gradual loss of window detail. The window area on the far right shows intense heat buildup. When we look to the roof area though, we also notice a strong heat signature with heat emanating from the siding itself in the gable area.

As an IC, you realize that this structure would benefit from aggressive vertical ventilation. However, heat signatures like we see in the roof area of Image 2 take some time to develop. Although it may take extra time, awaiting the setup of an aerial for ventilation purposes may be warranted.


Brushfires can also be an ideal place for IC deployment of a TI. If you have ever been to a soybean-field fire just before harvest, you have seen what heavy smoke looks like. Getting brush trucks to the larger fire areas and personnel to the smaller fire areas is essential. In situations like this, it is difficult for an IC to maintain an accurate operational picture and in a department where your resources (brush trucks and people) are in limited supply, appropriate deployment is critical to a successful operation.

Having the TI on hand can help the IC get an accurate picture of the scene and determine where deployment is needed. Personnel accountability is also enhanced when the IC can see what is going on. The TI allows the IC to see through the smoke, helping account for firefighters involved.

Limited Visibility

An IC can also use a TI simply to improve visibility at night and during inclement weather. Since the TI does not use light to generate an image, it makes an ideal night-vision tool. Picture quality is consistent in low-light conditions and allows an IC to generate a view of an entire scene. Visibility in rainy or foggy conditions can also be enhanced through the use of a TI.

Although these conditions will limit distance for a TI, you can see farther in these conditions with a thermal imager than with any other technology you may have access to. How far an imager can see in these types of conditions is affected by quite a few factors, including density of precipitation and ambient temperatures, but if you work in an area prone to fog, a TI can be a valuable tool for any incident.

Water Rescue

Water offers a unique advantage to using a TI in that it provides a consistent, isothermal background against which the TI can evaluate. Water, because it is a reflective surface for TI, often looks artificially cold, which makes warm things really stand out. Locating, accessing and rescuing victims at night or during inclement weather, in static or moving water, is a good use for a TI. Victims are easier to locate and scene operations are easier to monitor when the IC is not relying on a shore-based spotlight. The IC can monitor operations; as well as provide safety mechanisms should a victim or rescuer be released into the moving water.

TI deployment for the IC can add valuable information to decision making, as well as provide the IC with a cohesive operating picture of the scene. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." Deploying the TI lets the IC be the best "executive," giving him or her the information needed to deploy firefighters where needed while keeping at an appropriate distance to assess the scene, helping to ensure we all go home at the end of the day.

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