Real-life Lessons from Thermal Imager Training

In the June 2007 issue of Firehouse, the TI training column was an interview with Captain Will Vaigneur of the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District in South Carolina. Captain Vaigneur contacted me earlier in the year to share some tough lessons that he and his firefighters learned. They were drilling on rapid intervention procedures, but ended up learning much more about their thermal imaging procedures. Online, we'll examine more lessons from LI-SH FD.

Captain, you mentioned that search procedures were an issue. What did you learn?
We had crew after crew enter the structure and go straight to a right hand search with the team member in the rear carrying the TI. They were only able to advance as fast as the team members up front performing the traditional search. We taught each crew to enter the structure and scan the entire area searching for victims and fire extension and to relay important information to your crew members. Tell them what you observe, heat signatures, building layout, additional points of egress, or something that may impede your search. We also found that it worked well to have your team holdfast, clear a room and use the camera to stay in visual contact with your team.

My comments: A thermal imager should help you do your job faster and safer. Using the TI to do the work of the traditional search is key; however, you can't forget that the TI has no peripheral vision. You must scan shoulder-to-shoulder, and scan high-middle-low. Communication between members is critical; remember, they don'tt see what you see if you have the TI. Communications have to be accurate, but succinct. Saying, "There's a door over there," does not give your fellow firefighters anything useful. Saying, "There is a door in the middle of the north wall," gives your team much more information.

What surprised you most during the RIT drill?
The most surprising thing we found was the success that the teams had after they were taught better TI techniques. Beforehand, a large portion of their air was spent on trying to find the downed firefighter. When the RIT re-entered the structure using good TI techniques they were able to locate the firefighter quickly, provide air, and perform a needs assessment. This left them more air to remove the firefighter from the structure.

My comments: Again, we see proof that the TI helps firefighters do their jobs faster and with a higher level of success and confidence. The key, of course, is that they use the TI properly. This requires training and practice.

What disappointed you most during the RIT drill?
The most disappointing thing in our training was, prior to our instruction, when the victim was found they quit using the camera. Just about all of our firefighters chose to take the victim out the way they came in and never looked for the easiest point of egress. Our personnel are now trained that when the victim is located the crew members without the TI prepare the victim to be removed and the member of the team with the TI will do a complete scan looking for the safest and fastest point of egress.

My comments: Old habits die hard. We are used to exiting the way we came. Traditionally, it was the only way to ensure our safety and guarantee an exit. When we are properly trained on the TI, and use it aggressively, we can now look for alternate exits. This helps not only in the RIT application, but even in a structure fire when the situation starts to "go south" and we need to find an immediate exit.

What steps are you taking to spread knowledge and skills about TI use through your department?
In our training, we required all members of our department to attend. We were able to identify what our weaknesses were and give our personnel the instruction that we feel will make us better on scene. Now that we have identified weaknesses, it is our responsibility to keep moving forward. We have planned similar trainings with acquired structures to continue to become more efficient with our TIs. I always expect our department to be better today than we were yesterday.

My comments: I like this philosophy. We can't make ourselves better at what we do unless we know what it is that we don't do as well as we should. Having skills that need improvement is not bad; it helps us define our goals. Ignoring skills that need improvement, especially critical skills, is foolhardy. Ignorance may be bliss, but in the fire service, that can be deadly.


Remember, Captain Vaigneur's experience is his. Much of what he learned is universal in application; some of it, though, applies only to his department. It is his hope, as well as mine, that you can learn from his RIT drill. If you have experiences that you feel others can learn from, especially as they relate to thermal imagers, please let me know.

We can share the knowledge and maybe, just maybe, someone can learn from you without having to do it themselves the hard way. Be safe.

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 police officer in Lexington, Kentucky. If you have questions about thermal imaging, please send them to