Company Drills: TI Contingencies

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It is time again for specific training drills that can help you become more proficient with your thermal imager (TI). One of the recurrent themes in this series has been that regular practice with the TI is essential for successful use at an emergency incident. However, firefighters must always remember that a TI is just a tool, not a panacea.

Thermal imagers are electronic devices that are manufactured by people and that rely on battery power. As such, there is the potential that a TI can fail. Additionally, the user could drop and lose the TI at an incident. If “Mr. Murphy” has his way, the failure or loss will occur at the most inopportune time, such as when you are 125 feet deep into a commercial structure with dense smoke and heavy fire. Because the risks are so high, it is imperative that firefighters know how to continue an advance or retreat if they lose the use of their TI.

This month, there is only one drill suggestion. It is such an important drill that it stands alone and should be considered a “must do” for any fire company assigned a thermal imager. This drill could help you save a civilian, as well as yourself.

Return to Basics

A number of articles in this series and elsewhere have identified the need to use a TI as a reference tool to orient yourself, search the room or area, and choose a path of advance. While advancing, you cannot rely solely on the vision provided by the TI; you could lose it at any point. You must stay oriented and have a “back-up” plan detailing how you will proceed through, or exit from, a structure. Failure to maintain orientation is potentially fatal, as one drill in Illinois demonstrated.

During a rapid intervention drill, the RIT used a TI to locate and package the “injured” firefighter. Once the team was ready to extract the firefighter, an instructor took the TI from the team, removed its battery, and returned the TI. He then ordered them to proceed with the rescue. To the chagrin of all involved, the four-man RIT had failed to stay oriented through other means. They had all relied on their eyesight (enhanced with the TI) to get in, and therefore needed their eyesight to get them out. But without a functioning TI, their “eyesight” disappeared. No one on the RIT knew how to get out of the structure without the TI. If this had been a real incident, the incident commander would have been faced with a disaster: five “Maydays” at once!

The importance of maintaining orientation is easily emphasized and developed through regular search drills. The drills can be done in a dark environment, such as a bunkroom or basement, or in a smoky environment. Firefighters benefit from practicing in either environment, since normal visibility is limited and they are tempted to rely on the “eyesight” given by the TI. Properly used, this ability to see increases search speed, search accuracy and firefighter safety. Carelessly used, however, the TI can increase the risks to firefighters.

In the drill, firefighters are tasked with searching the area for victims by using normal search tools, including the TI. Set up the area to simulate a residence or commercial property. Place obstacles in locations that force firefighters to search “off the wall.” This makes the search more challenging. At some point in the drill, an instructor advises the team to turn off the TI, which simulates a battery or electronic failure. The instructor then advises the team to continue the search or to evacuate. Make sure you ask search teams to practice both. You do not want to practice only evacuation, because this would reinforce the notion that a TI failure requires evacuation. Firefighters must know how to continue a search after a TI failure, since the search team may be the only chance for a trapped civilian.

Also, ensure that you have a set procedure for informing the incident commander (IC) about the TI failure, and practice communicating this during the drills. The IC should know about the situation, because it can affect the efficiency and future assignments for the company. Some fire departments may choose a special code, such as a 10 code (i.e., 10-80D) to advise they have lost the use of a TI. Others may choose plain text:

“Harlem Road Command from 805 Alpha.”
“805 Alpha, go ahead.”
“Command, 805’s TI is down. We are continuing with a standard search.”
“10-4, 805 Alpha. TI is down, continuing standard search.”

Now, the IC can choose to commit another TI to the search, or a “non-TI” company to assist with the standard search.

As your firefighters become more comfortable with alternating between “seeing” and “blindness,” increase the difficulty of the search. Add rooms or obstacles; simulate partial collapses that separate search partners, etc. These exercises help reinforce that firefighters must constantly maintain a search pattern or tagline that will take them quickly to safety.

Properly oriented firefighters will be able to continue searches safely because they have proceeded in a logical pattern and know how to continue it. These challenges also reinforce that your firefighters must maintain their traditional search and safety skills, critical skills that are easily lost without regular practice.

Final Report

No one likes to plan for failure. The stakes are so high at fire emergencies, we must plan on contingencies. We practice RIT procedures “just in case” a firefighter is injured or lost. We practice low-air and bailout procedures “just in case” a firefighter finds himself in a dire situation.

Pumping relays and water shuttles are designed to keep operating “just in case” an apparatus fails. Our TI training must include “just in case” training as well.

If you ensure that firefighters can comfortably switch from TI-assisted searches to traditional searches, you will dramatically improve the safety of your firefighters. With regular practice, the transition will be easy and effective.

For more information on “TI contingencies,” visit the Technology Section of Firehouse.com.


Jonathan Bastian is the former thermal imaging training manager at Bullard. He is certified as a thermal imaging instructor by the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA), the international public safety organization specializing in thermal imager certification and training. He is also a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training. Educated at Brown University and licensed as a high school teacher in Illinois, Bastian served 12 years on the North Park, IL, Fire Department, including the last three as a captain. As health and safety officer, he led the development and implementation of the department’s rapid intervention team SOG. Bastian is a certified Fire Instructor I and Firefighter III, and he spent 12 years as an EMT-I/D. He has taught classes on thermal imaging, rapid intervention teams, and search and rescue operations. Bullard is happy to answer any questions about thermal imaging; contact the company at info@bullard.com.

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