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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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.