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This month's thermal imaging (TI) training column is a response to a question from a Tennessee firefighter:
Jonathan...Our biggest problem in using the TIs is that our older officers don't understand them. They figure, "We've fought fire just fine without them...why do we need them?" So, the imagers just sit on the trucks, except sometimes for overhaul. What can I do to change their minds?
Don't be too frustrated; this is a common occurrence. Too many thermal imagers sit in compartments or cabinets because senior firefighters fail to realize the benefits of a TI. This is unfair to you and your fellow firefighters. The TI can make life easier and safer for you at many types of emergencies. Collecting dust is a terrible application for a TI. They are not cheap; the money used to buy that unused TI could have purchased other equipment for your company. Additionally, it is unfair to the taxpayers who paid to purchase the tool. After all, part of your job of serving the public includes using all the equipment they provide effectively and responsibly.
Generally, people do not like change. That is your primary hurdle in this dilemma. Change causes stress and forces us to move outside of our "comfort zone." As firefighters, with our strong ties to tradition, we tend to be highly resistant to change. Take self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) as an example. Despite having SCBA on fire trucks for more than 30 years, there are still departments where religious use of SCBA is stigmatized: "Real firefighters eat a little smoke and get a little snotty." Therefore, a new technology that promises to revolutionize how we fight fires can be quite overwhelming.
Taking the First Step
First, you need to remind the resisting firefighters (and perhaps even yourself) that change is sometimes a good thing. Maybe they need to reminisce about how hard things were "back in the day." There is something senior officers remember as a change for the better. Was it having one SCBA per truck or wearing steel SCBA cylinders? Was it crawling in three-quarter-length boots or attacking house fires with one-inch booster lines? Help them realize that sometimes change is good.
As much as an officer may not want to change, an intelligent explanation can encourage even the stubborn ones to give something a fair shot once. Make sure that he or she understands what the TI is capable of accomplishing. Remember to balance the person's personality against your own, and show proper respect for rank and experience. Lecturing an officer on the need to accept modern technology may ensure you permanent duty cleaning the restrooms. Depending on the situation, you might want to make an occasional comment about the TI and how it could help, rather than insisting the person endure a two-hour demonstration. Be subtle if necessary and as tactful as possible. Don't alienate your boss and make the firehouse uncomfortable.
Show Them the Way
Part of your conversion attempt involves demonstrations and discussions about thermal imaging. Some of this can be done in and around the firehouse. The bulk of your work is demonstrating the benefits of the TI at emergency incidents. The reality is if you cannot show how the TI helps in real life, you will never convince the officer to change.
If your officer does not take the TI off the truck, then you will have to suggest that someone brings it along. Depending on how the TI is mounted, you may even have the opportunity simply to bring it yourself. It takes time to change mindsets. First, you build the habit of bringing the TI into each call. Then, once it is there, you build the habit of using it. Even if the TI may not provide much useful information, use the device. The skeptics need to see it in action. One day they will ask, "What do you see with it?" When that happens, you have finally broken the barrier. Before long, you will be asked to provide insight using the TI, perhaps assessing a wall during overhaul or evaluating a container at a hazmat incident. At that point, the reluctant firefighter will have crossed over and accepted the thermal imager as an important tool for the company.
Initially, when you bring the TI into every scene, expect to receive odd stares. But if you persevere, the TI can gain acceptance as an everyday tool on your fire company.
If your company officer does not want to use the thermal imager, you are not alone. But the situation is not hopeless. By taking subtle steps and demonstrating the value of the TI, you can convert even the most stubborn officer into an eager user of thermal imaging.
For a real-life example of how one man convinced his officer to start using the TI, visit the Technology section of Firehouse.com. If you have other questions or experiences you would like to see addressed in this column, send them to me at email@example.com.
JONATHAN BASTIAN is a thermal imaging specialist for Bullard. He is certified as a thermal imaging instructor by the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association (LETA). He is also the author of the FD Training Network "FireNotes" book, Thermal Imaging for the Fire Service. Bastian served 12 years on the North Park, IL, Fire Department, including the last three as a captain. He has taught classes on thermal imaging, rapid intervention teams and search and rescue operations. He is currently a public safety official in Central Kentucky. If you have questions about thermal imaging, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.