Thermal Imaging: Real-World Incidents

The Buffalo, NY, Fire Department’s first use of a thermal imaging camera (TIC) was spawned by tragedy. On July 4, 1997, Firefighter Mike Sequin was killed in a fire on Kehr Street. After his death, a fundraising campaign was started to raise money to purchase a thermal imager. This effort was spearheaded by the firefighter’s father.

Today, the department has a thermal imager assigned to each battalion chief’s vehicle and one to the rescue company. (The hope is with increased funding the department will be able to assign a TIC to each ladder company as well.) It is important from both an operational standpoint as well as a training standpoint to deploy a TIC on each incident and early in the incident. The TIC can be an aid in size-up, fire attack, search and overhaul. By always deploying the TIC, the members will become more proficient and comfortable with it.

Firefighter Safety

Thermal imaging cameras have many uses on the fireground; the most important is saving and protecting life. This article reports on incidents in Buffalo, NY, at which TICs have had an impact, whether in saving lives, making rescues or finding fire.

A fire at 146 West Utica Ave. involved the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation (see photo 1). The fire originated in the basement of the nearly 100-year-old gothic church. A fourth-alarm assignment was required to extinguish it. During the operation, a firefighter from Truck 6 became separated from his crew. Due to the configuration of the sanctuary, with sections of pews having been placed at different angles, the firefighter quickly became disoriented. The firefighter’s radio was on a different tactical channel than the one used at the fire.

Fortunately, the accountability officer was monitoring all channels and heard the call. A Mayday was transmitted to companies on the scene. Rescue 1, commanded by Lieutenant Phil Ryan, was already in the church with a thermal imaging camera. The firefighter was located quickly and assisted out of the building. Without the support of the TIC, this firefighter might have run out of air and been seriously injured or worse.

The TIC was helpful in other ways at this fire. A large hole in the middle aisle of the church was identified by using the TIC, as was extension of the fire that was coming up under many of the pews where heat ducts were located. There was one of these ducts under every pew in the sanctuary.

Another incident involved a large commercial structure (see photo 2). A full first-alarm assignment responded to a report of a fire in a commercial building on Illinois Street. Upon arrival, crews found a two-, three- and four-story building of heavy-timber construction with a severe smoke condition. Engine 1 was stretching a 2½-inch line when Rescue 1 arrived. The crew, led by Lieutenant Dan Corcoran, deployed the TIC. Firefighters Gary Schurr and Mark Van Horn advanced into the building and found the source of the smoke condition with the camera. The fire was contained in a metal smelting kettle. The flames from the unit were the equivalent of almost two stories in height, although the fire had not extended from this unit. The crew also determined that the kettle was fed by natural gas, a conclusion they arrived at because of the loud noise that was heard from the escaping gas. Corcoran made the decision to not use water on the fire; his decision and other information were relayed to the incident commander, who concurred. Van Horn and Schurr used the TIC to aid them in finding the gas shutoff to the smelting unit. The gas supply to the kettle was cut and the conditions in the building improved rapidly (see photo 3).

Had water been used on this fire, the results would have been catastrophic. The explosion would have leveled the entire building and most likely killed or seriously injured all the firefighters who were on location. This is an example of some good decision making that saved lives. The TIC was instrumental in supplying the information needed to make those decisions.

Fire Attack

The use of a thermal imaging camera in fire attack expands and enhances our ability to find a fire. The time we need to find the seat of a fire is condensed, often resulting in less fire spread.

One incident involved a fire in a two-story wood-frame dwelling (see photo 4). Crews responded to a report of a dwelling fire at 44 Jones St. Firefighters were met with an occupied two-story wood-frame dwelling with two step-down additions (each addition off the rear of the building is of lower height from the original building). Heavy fire had possession of the rear step-down attic. The stairs to the second floor were in the center of the building off the kitchen; behind these stairs on the second floor was a door to a storage space in the original section of the second floor. Off this storage area was a second half door that concealed the step-down attic area where the fire was burning.

Conditions on the second floor were extremely hot with zero visibility. The rescue company deployed its TIC on arrival and was able to “see†the openings to the step-down and direct the line into the fire. This was not a significant fire, the type of incident that occurs in Buffalo a couple times a day, but it shows the value of the TIC in even “routine†assignments.

Another incident, however, was neither routine nor insignificant. On April 4, 2004, Palm Sunday, a fire was reported at SS. Columba & Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church at 418 North Division St. A full assignment responded. The fire was under the initial command of Battalion Chief Jim LaMacchia. Upon arrival, fire was venting out of a large stained-glass window on side 2 of the building (see photo 5). The building was approximately 70 by 150 feet with a large, three-story rectory attached. The building, erected in 1881, was of masonry exterior walls with heavy timber and heavy bow truss construction.

Services had concluded and the church was secured, requiring forcible entry for firefighters to gain access. Due to the size of the building and the fire, LaMacchia ordered two 2½-inch handlines as the initial attack (see photo 6). Crews made good headway and rapidly knocked down the fire in the main sanctuary. Additional 1¾-inch lines were advanced up a narrow staircase to the choir loft above the front of the church where fire was still burning. The fire in this area was knocked down and overhaul commenced. Conditions had improved, with good visibility showing areas on the main floor and in the loft that needed attention.

A short time into overhaul operations, a severe smoke condition banked down from the church ceiling, approximately 40 feet above the floor. This smoke condition quickly enveloped the choirloft and then the main floor of the church. LaMacchia, who had now taken over the command of interior operations, notified the incident commander, Division Chief Don McFeely, of the situation and had all crews operating in the church back out.

At this time, the source of the smoke condition was unknown. Rescue 1, commanded by the author (then a captain), re-entered the church and used the TIC to find the fire source. Rescue 1 members made their way to the choirloft and then up a ladder to a concealed space above the main sanctuary of the church. Fire was found in two large bays of the attic space formed by the bow string trusses (see photos 7 and 8). The fire had possession of about a 30-foot-wide section of the attic space and was spreading rapidly.

The thermal imaging camera allowed this fire to be found and also for the catwalk walkway to be identified in the smoke condition so crews could operate safely. Engine companies and the rescue company advanced hoselines to this area, where they held and extinguished the fire. This would have been next to impossible without the help of the TIC.

Non-Fire Uses

Besides fires, a TIC can be helpful in hazmat, water surface search, police searches and other types of emergency responses.

In Lewiston, NY, north of Buffalo, Fire Company 1 responded to a one-car accident involving a sheriff’s department vehicle. The vehicle went off the road, struck a pole and ended up in tall grass. A quick-thinking firefighter deployed the TIC upon the fire department’s arrival. Scanning the scene, the firefighter could see that the officer had already exited the vehicle and was leaning on it, dazed from the impact. The firefighter scanning with the camera also noticed that live power lines were down and hanging at chest height. The officer was removed safely and suffered only minor injuries. The thermal imaging camera was useful in identifying this potentially deadly hazard.

These are just a sampling of incidents where a thermal imaging camera was useful in fire attack, search and saving lives. The TIC’s uses are limited only by your imagination; however, the camera will be of no use if it is not deployed on every call and deployed early with the first members entering the incident area. As with all equipment, training in the use of a thermal imaging camera and the interpretation of its image is crucial for a department to operate safely and effectively.

Mike Lombardo is the commissioner of the Buffalo, NY, Fire Department. Previously serving as captain of Rescue Company 1, he has spent 27 years in the fire service and is a speaker and instructor on fireground tactics throughout the United States. He received Firehouse® Magazine heroism awards in 1988 and 1993.