February's Thermal Imaging Training article in Firehouse Magazine addressed the importance of knowing how to move efficiently from a TI-assisted search to a traditional search. In short, firefighters have to practice skills with and without a thermal imager to ensure they can operate regardless of the status of their TI.
If your TI fails completely during an incident, your only option is to operate without it. For hundreds of years, firefighters have operated without TIs. You already know your efforts are easier, safer and more effective with the TI. Therefore, it is important that you practice skills that can help you recover the use of a TI as quickly as possible. Some of the potential problems can be overcome with proper training and practice. Below are two common problems that you and your company can practice correcting on the fireground so you can place your TI back into service when you need it, not after you have returned to the firehouse.
Batteries: Thermal imager battery failures are one of the most common challenges faced during an emergency incident. Practice changing batteries while wearing firefighting gloves. If possible, practice changing batteries in the dark, to simulate an emergency replacement in poor visibility. Note that this drill makes sense only if your standard guideline suggests the user carry a spare battery with him during an incident.
Also, be sure you have a battery charging and management plan. The plan must be formal, written, well-communicated and universally used. If each shift follows its own schedule for charging or swapping batteries, you are inviting battery failure. You should remind your equipment personnel that rechargeable batteries do have a fixed lifespan. Depending on the chemistry of your rechargeable batteries, as well as their quality and usage, expect them to last 12 to 36 months. Write "expiration dates" on your batteries and buy replacements in advance. Do not wait until you are only getting five or ten minutes of battery life before you think about buying a replacement.
Condensation: Condensation can build up on the lens or germanium window on the front of the TI. This layer of water dramatically reduces the amount of infrared energy reaching the detector inside the TI, and as a result, degrades the thermal image. Keep in mind that one of the byproducts of combustion is water, which can make a structure fire a humid environment. You may find the thermal image appears very fuzzy and that there is condensation on the display cover. If you have condensation on the display cover, you probably have condensation on the lens. Train your firefighters to wipe the display cover and the lens whenever they notice moisture build up or image degradation.
Since most firefighters do not carry a tissue in their turnout gear for wiping lenses, the tip of a gloved finger will have to suffice. While this is not a recommended care practice, it may be the only way to get your TI functioning properly if condensation is on the lens. In a humid fire, you may find the lens has to be wiped five or six times before the temperature of the lens exceeds the dew point.
These may seem like simple issues, but they can frustrate your fire company immensely if they happen during a fire. By preparing yourself and your company for potential problems, you are ensuring that this awesome tool, the thermal imager, will be available as much as possible. The TI can only help you if it comes off the truck. Of course, when it does come off the truck, it needs to work for the entire incident to be the most valuable. It is up to you to give it the best chance of performing to your level of expectations.
Use your TI often, wisely and safely.
- Firehouse Magazine: Thermal Imaging Training
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.