Thermal Imaging: Real-World Incidents

Mike Lombardo describes through actual incidents how thermal imaging cameras are saving lives and finding the fire through technology.


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...


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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.

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