The March 2007 Thermal Imaging Training Column in Firehouse discussed how to carry a thermal imager with all of your other equipment. Online, we'll examine some tips to help shorten your learning curve and find a reliable system.
Obviously, carrying the TI in your hand is the easiest solution; however it is generally the least acceptable as well. Regardless of the type of strap or handle that your TI has, this option occupies one of your hands during the operation. It becomes difficult to perform other tasks, especially if you have to carry other tools or help advance a hoseline. This may be a viable option for a company officer who acts as a supervisor, but it is probably not an option if a firefighter carries the TI. Keep in mind that with a larger format TI, fatigue may become a factor. This will probably be comfortable only with a small-format imager.
One of the earliest carrying options provided by manufacturers is a wrist strap. This clips to the TI, and the strap has a loop that drapes over one wrist. The weight of the TI pulls the strap tight, securing it in place. While wrist straps are a clever idea, they are not the most practical, especially with the larger TIs. The system allows for the user to release the TI and use both hands, but then he has a four or five pound weight dangling from one of them. These straps are a little more user-friendly with the smaller TIs, but they are still uncomfortable.
These are a standard accessory for most thermal imagers, although they are less common for the smaller ones. If you find that this system works for you, consider how long the strap has to be to go over your head and around your torso. You will not be able to balance the strap on just one shoulder; it will keep slipping off, frustrating you. Consider connecting both clips on the strap to the same ring on the TI. Normally, this will be easiest near the video display. This helps keep the strap out of the way of the lens. Connecting both ends of the strap to the same ring also helps prevent unintentional placement of the strap. You'll also need to adjust the length; if it is too long, the TI will drag on the floor when you crawl. If it is too short, it will be hard to sling the imager when you are in full gear.
One innovative adjustment I have heard is a department using a backboard strap, rather than the supplied strap, with the TI. They used the type with a seatbelt buckle and a clip on each end. This gave them the ability to move the TI from user to user with ease; it also addressed a concern they had with the TI being a possible entanglement hazard. While this is a creative solution, keep in mind that a backboard strap may not be flame resistant. Almost every strap provided with a TI is manufactured from Kevlar or Nomex (or a combination), and therefore is heat and flame retardant.
These are the newest carrying systems to hit the market. They are essentially Gear Keepers that have been adjusted to carry the extra weight of a TI. These are nice systems because they keep the imager close to the firefighter's body and have clips to facilitate easy transfer. The two most common mounting points are on an SCBA shoulder strap or a truck belt around the user's waist. Personally, I've never tried the belt option. I do like the SCBA choice because it's easy to grab and deploy without increasing my profile.
Retractable straps are not perfect. They rely on a spring inside the housing to counter the TI's weight. If the spring breaks, there is no retraction and the TI will dangle at the end of a two- or three-foot cord. Also, the housings are plastic, which means a firefighter will probably find a way to break them. The biggest challenge actually comes when you are using the TI. When you extend your arm to hold the TI at a normal viewing distance, you are pulling on the retractable cord. This is not a lot of force, but over time, you may notice fatigue in your shoulder. Remember, your shoulder has some of the weakest muscles in the body, so even a light counter force can be tiresome.
The carrying systems above cover the majority of ways in which TIs are deployed by firefighters. This is not an exhaustive list; in fact, you may have developed a more creative method. If you have discovered a carrying system that we can share with other firefighters, please e-mail me and let me know. Of course, the only way to determine if a system works for you is to get out and try it.
As always, be safe.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.