Thermal Imager Training: Safety

September's Firehouse thermal imager training article

Think about the last time you went in to overhaul after a fire. You have light smoke in the building. Do you use a left-hand search? Do you crawl? Of course not! Why? Because you can see. Depending on where you work, you might not even wear your SCBA facepiece! The ability to see makes us feel safe. Now, when you have a thermal imager in a smoke-filled structure, you can see. The catch, of course, is that it is not safe?you are still in a structure that is compromised, and you are combating both fire and an IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) environment.

Staying safe means making effective scans and moving through the structure in a coordinated fashion. Remember, your scan should be shoulder-to-shoulder, high-middle-low. Always start "high" because that's where your indicators of high heat will be, and also because stuff falling down hurts more than stuff falling up. Also, don't cheat on your shoulder-to-shoulder scan. Since it lacks peripheral vision, your TI cannot show you the portions of the scene that you would normally capture with your eyes. Believe it or not, it actually takes significant practice to make the shoulder-to-shoulder scan a normal process. Since we do not have to move our eyes or heads very much to scan a room, there is a natural tendency to scan with a TI the same way.

As you scan, choose your waypoints to determine how you will progress through the structure. These will be objects or structural features that you can feel as you crawl along. In a single-family dwelling, the likely waypoints are furniture, corners or doorways. Furniture is a common waypoint because your TI cannot see through it. Therefore, when you scan an area, if you see a couch, dresser or other larger piece of furniture, remember that a victim might be on the other side, depending on your angle. If the furniture is along the wall you plan to use in your search pattern, then the opposite side of that piece of furniture is an ideal waypoint. You clear the unseen area, as well as pause to scan the whole scene from a different angle. Of course, you cannot forget to check your primary exit.

After each scan, it is imperative that you sling your TI, or otherwise get it out of view. If you keep the TI in front of your eyes, you will end up watching the display as you navigate through the structure. If you doubt the magnetism of a television, ask anyone with kids how mesmerizing a TV can be. Realize that your TI display is a little TV, and it will be a magnet for your eyes. Of course, if you rely only on your eyesight to get into the structure, you will probably need your eyesight to get out. By moving the TI away from your view, you are forcing yourself back into darkness. This encourages you to follow your safety protocols, staying low and crawling while in contact with a wall. It also encourages you to draw your "mental map" as you progress through the building.

All of this may sound simple, but it really isn't. It is not enough just to tell people how to do this; on company drills they actually need to practice it. And they have to practice it a lot! It is human nature to rely on our eyes, and it is human nature to want to "see" our way through a structure. The only way to overcome this instinct is to force yourself to practice it repeatedly, making it second nature to use the TI as a reference tool.

Use your TI often, wisely and safely.


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