The Thermal Imager and Accountability

The November thermal imaging training column in Firehouse magazine addresses the issue of using a thermal imager to maintain firefighter accountability. The article addresses a number of the key points, including some of the challenges that chiefs and fire officers must remember during accountability efforts. As usual, this article will expand upon those ideas.

First, thermal imagers need to be incorporated into the department's standard operating procedures. The SOPs need to be more in-depth than just, "Take it out and turn it on." While the thermal imagers may need their own SOP dealing with care, maintenance and training, they should not be isolated from the rest of the department's policies. TIs should be incorporated throughout the SOPs, as mandatory or recommended tools for a variety of situations. Specific personnel need to be assigned responsibility for bringing the TI into scenes. Frequently this is a company officer's duty, but it does not have to be. Additionally, those assigned the TI need to practice deploying with the TI and any other tools they regularly carry. By practicing in advance, firefighters will ensure that they have developed a comfortable means for deploying all their tools in an effective and efficient manner.

Second, do not underestimate the risks and challenges of identifying reflections. One New York firefighter used to love telling his first experience in a structure fire with a TI:

As the officer of the second-in truck company, his company was assigned to search apartments above the fire floor. After they forced entry into their first apartment, he began using the TI to scan the apartment while his company deployed to search by hand. On the other side of the apartment, he saw more firefighters searching and spreading out. He saw the officer holding a TI?they looked at each other and waved. Taking this as a sign that the other company was going to search that half of the apartment, he ensured that his company did their half, and then they backed out to search the next apartment.

The officer did not learn the truth until after the fire, when he asked the chief in charge which truck helped on his floor. The chief said, "None?why?"

A reflection had fooled him into thinking he had help, when in reality half of the apartment was not searched. Fortunately, no one was in the un-searched portion. The officer was able to learn from this mistake and ensure others avoided it in the future.

As you practice with your TI, remember that accountability can be a task managed concurrently with other tasks. As you advance the hoseline down the hallway, looking for heat and safety concerns, you can verify you still have all three members of the company on the line. Or, when your company is checking for extension above the fire floor, you can scan the hallway for heat while you verify which rooms or apartments are currently being searched and that those firefighters are safe.

As with many firefighting activities, accountability does not have to be done in a vacuum. Skilled, comfortable users will integrate accountability as a part of their normal use, not as a stand-alone application.

Use your TI often, wisely and safely.

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