Firefighter Disorientation: Your Thermal Imager Can Help

115 That's the preliminary number released by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) for line-of-duty deaths in 2007. While that number may change as more details are determined, it stands as a stark reminder that firefighting is a dangerous business. While cardiovascular issues still led the pack as the primary cause overall, firefighter disorientation was the leading cause of structural fireground deaths in 2007.

Now, you might think I am getting ready to tell you that your thermal imager (TI) can solve this problem for you — and I am. But, I am also going to caution you that your thermal imager can potentially aggravate the problem as well.

Becoming lost or disoriented inside a burning structure can be a harrowing experience. While some might joke that I spent the better part of my firefighting career "lost and disoriented," I have been in the position of not knowing the way out. It is not a pleasant experience. Forced to feel around for some recognizable object and then guessing which way to go from there leaves one feeling a little panicked.

It is safe to assume that the primary cause of firefighter disorientation is the lack of visibility. We're talking about the type of blindness that only thick, black smoke can deliver. Absent smoke, navigating a building is fairly simple. Deprived of sight, however, it becomes a totally different experience, and this is where the thermal imager can help.

With a thermal imager, disorientation can be virtually eliminated. Did you catch that? The leading cause of structural fireground deaths practically eliminated! That could have meant 21 fewer deaths in 2007. And although a thermal imager helps you "see," it will only help reduce disorientation when used correctly.

For example, let's think of the following scenario: What if I took you down to the local Wal-Mart? You've been in this store several times and know the general layout. As we approach the front door, I place a blindfold over your eyes, give you a standard 30-minute self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottle to breathe from and I lead you through the store. We weave our way up and down aisles, turning right and left. After 10 minutes, we stop and I spin you around several times and then tell you to find your own way out. How long would that take? Could you do it in less time than the remaining air in your bottle?

Now let's look at the same scenario, except that after the 10-minute walk through the store, spinning around a few times and telling you to find your own way out, I remove the blindfold. Now how long would it take you to get out? That's the benefit of your thermal imager.

As you begin to enter a structure, you should scan the room with your thermal imager using a three-pass technique. The first pass scans across the ceiling looking for heat accumulation, potential vent points and structural integrity. The second pass looks across the middle of the room, taking note of the physical layout of the room and its contents, as well the location of any secondary egress points. The third pass scans the floor looking for collapsed victims, further refining your mental picture of the room and taking note of any special hazards. All three scans take less than 10 seconds, but are important to maintaining proper orientation with your thermal imager. Actual navigation of the room should not be done with your thermal imager.

I know what you're thinking. "Don't use my TI? Are you crazy?!" Maybe, but I would not use the thermal imager for the actual act of navigation for the simple fact that you can usually move quicker without it once you know the layout of the room. This is where your thermal imager can potentially aggravate the situation. Forcing yourself to navigate "old-school," you are maintaining your basic skills and confirming by touch, the mental map you developed during the second pass you made with the thermal imager. If something were to happen to the thermal imager (you drop it and lose it, the battery dies or it malfunctions), you have a firm grasp on how you got here and how you will get back. You know where the secondary egresses are because you touched them as you navigated. As you move around the room, you should pause and re-scan the room using the three-pass approach, observing changing fire conditions. When moving from point to point, the three-pass technique rules.

Firefighter disorientation is far too common to ignore, and it can have serious consequences. According to the preliminary report from the USFA, "Each year, firefighters becoming trapped and disoriented represent the largest portion of structural fireground fatalities." Remember, your thermal imager can remove the blindfold of thick smoke and allow you to find your way out, but maintaining proper orientation relies on combining basic skills with thermal imager skills, not replacing one with the other.