The TI Training column in January's Firehouse Magazine addresses outside training resources. A formal program by a state or regional training organization is a great resource, especially since it is a recognized standard for your area. Not every state or region has an academy, and even those with academies may not have developed TI training programs. Distance and travel expenses can also make the regional fire center too expensive to be a realistic option. Frequently, that means a fire department must turn to a private company for training.
The biggest hindrance in TI training is the lack of national standards. The Law Enforcement Thermographers Association is the recognized standard in law enforcement, as the DEA, FBI and Royal Canadian Mounted Police all subscribe to the LETA training programs. Other companies, such as ITC, meet industrial standards that reflect maintenance and scientific needs. The fire service, though, doesn't need Constitutional law, probable cause or friction loss equivalents in ball bearings (hard to believe anyone really needs that last one, huh?). We need to know about performing good, safe searches in buildings on fire; we need to know if and when our thermal imagers will show product levels at hazmat scenes; we need to know what pre-flashover conditions look like on a thermal imager.
The universal standard in the fire service is the NFPA. Unfortunately, the NFPA has not tackled the issue of what qualifies as competent TI training. Some of you may be thinking, "Thank goodness!" After all, the NFPA has told us that our airpacks have to weigh 10 pounds more than they did 10 years ago and cost twice as much. They've also told us that a leather helmet has to weigh six pounds to provide appropriate protection...five pounds won't cut it! But for all the pooh-poohing that the NFPA suffers, the reality is that the NFPA standards are designed to protect the firefighter and the fire service. Better gear protects firefighters from hostile situations, while common standards ensure minimum, measurable levels of performance. That means fire departments don't buy nylon turnouts just because they are low-bid.
The lack of an NPFA standard in TIs means that private companies can sell themselves as TI trainers, without having to meet any basic requirements. And that can be bad for you, as it removes one of the basic means for determining if the people you are about to hire meet a minimum standard.
What To Look For?
First and foremost, don't be wowed by pedigree. By that, I mean, just because a firefighter worked for a top-notch fire department doesn't mean he was a top-notch firefighter. Think of the big city near you that is sort of the local "gold standard" of the fire service. For every awesome firefighter you know in that fire department, there are probably three average ones and one bad one. It's the common bell curve of human life, and the prestigious departments are no more immune to it than you or your neighbor.
Also, just because a firefighter has a lot of fire experience does not mean he has a lot of thermal imaging experience. Many large cities are just now incorporating TIs into their regular operations. Others have had TIs for years, but they were rarely used or thinly distributed. So, just because someone served 25 years on the busiest truck company in XYZ Fire Department doesn't mean he knows much about thermal imaging. His experience with a TI could have been limited to the introductory class he sat through the year before he retired. While you don't want to be blinded by an instructor's pedigree, the reality is that firefighting experience matters...especially when you are teaching other firefighters. We want to be taught by people who have "walked the walk," not just "talked the talk."