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This month, the column answers a question from a firefighter in Illinois:
Jonathan - I like using the thermal imager, but I can't carry it with all the other stuff I have to bring to a fire. I carry a halligan bar and a flathead axe, help hump hose and carry a TI, all while wearing full turnout gear with a portable radio carrier draped across me. It just feels like I have to leave something behind and the TI always seems to be the thing left behind. What's the trick?
This is an excellent question, especially since there really isn't a "trick" to managing it all. The key to juggling all of your tools along with your thermal imager (TI) is the same as the key to mastering any other skill. Learning complex skills requires breaking the task into component parts and practicing each part. By breaking down the situation into sub-tasks, you make the overall task seem more manageable. This promotes learning, as well as competence, and reduces frustration.
This may sound like psycho-babble teacher-talk, but think about how you learned to use the SCBA. You have straps that get tangled, hoses or regulators to snap into place, a facepiece to be donned in a specific manner, pre- and post-use testing, system checks and a limited air supply in a hostile, vision-restricted environment. Talk about learning overload! But, the instructor divided the training into several smaller chunks, starting with how an SCBA works and continuing through how to change a cylinder, how to don and doff, and how to check for a face seal. Once each step was mastered, it was incorporated with the next step. Pretty soon, donning an SCBA wasn't that big a deal. In fact, with practice, operating in SCBA is second nature.
Take It in Steps
Learning to carry your TI along with your other tools isn't that much different than learning SCBA. Begin with the basics, including how to use the thermal imager and how to activate it and all of its accessories.
The next major step is to select a carrying system. Each manufacturer makes a number of carrying systems for its thermal imagers. Depending on your TI model, there are different hand straps and handles. You may also have a shoulder strap, wrist strap or retractable strap to attach to the TI. Select one or two that you think will be most convenient for what you want to accomplish, and then move on to the next step.
Step three involves testing the carrying system with your operations. This is where you find out if your carrying system is going to work. Practice laying out hoselines, raising ladders, climbing onto roofs all while carrying assorted hand tools. And do it all in turnout gear, while wearing your airpack. This is the only way you will determine how to handle all of your tasks. More importantly, you will learn the positives and negatives to each carrying method. For example, you may like a shoulder strap system, but find that the TI gets hooked onto your SCBA valve when you climb a ladder.
During this step, you may very well learn that the carrying system you chose does not work well for your needs. You may have to change or modify how you carry the TI by choosing a different handle or strap, or lengthening or shortening a strap. You might even have to modify something provided by the manufacturer. Use this adjustment phase to make yourself comfortable and competent; that means it does not have to be perfect. Over the next few months and years, you may find small adjustments that lead you closer to the ideal system.
Once you have identified the carrying system you want to use, use it. Practice with it regularly during company drills, battalion drills and real incidents. If you are assigned to a truck company, practice all of your normal truck operations while carrying the TI. Become comfortable lugging a chainsaw to the roof or using a hook to pull a ceiling. Take advantage of a safe environment during drills to find situations where your TI carrying system may not work as well as you hoped.