I am going to go out on a limb. My guess is that you do not have enough thermal imagers.
Before you get defensive, consider the facts. FEMA estimated in 2002 that less than 25% of all the fire departments in the US had at least one thermal imager. Not one per firehouse, or one per engine company, just one. Yes, there are a few leaders out there. The leaders have an imager on every truck, on every engine, or in every firehouse. The really aggressive departments have a TI on each fire company. The most progressive are now putting two TIs on every fire company. But, most FDs don't have any. And a lot of the rest just have one. So, odds are, you do not have enough TIs. Of course, this begs the question: How many is "enough?"
I offer to you that the minimum should be three for each structure fire. By now, you should understand how the TI can assist the lead engine. With a TI, the engine can advance their hose more safely and find the fire more rapidly. During the primary search, they may even locate victims prior to the arrival of the truck company. The engine needs a TI. The truck (or 2nd company acting as a truck) benefits from a TI as well. If they are assigned to secondary searches, a TI can make their efforts safer, faster and more effective. If the truck has to ventilate, the TI can help them identify desirable vent areas as well as confirm the effectiveness of the vent hole. So, the truck needs a TI too.
Last, consider the latest "hot button" topic in the fire service: RIT. The rapid intervention team is stationed outside, trained and ready, so that if the engine or the truck runs into problems, the RIT can help those people out of the structure. If you called "mayday," would you want the RIT to find you quickly? If you called "mayday," would you be in hot, smoky conditions? If the RIT has a TI, will they find you faster? You bet. If we are going to have an "insurance policy" on the fireground (RIT), we should properly equip it. Along with the spare SCBA, the RIT should have a TI.
So, one for the engine, one for the truck and one for RIT. That's three imagers on the fireground. That also assumes a single-family dwelling fire. In a high-rise, where you might have three trucks performing searches and two engines advancing hose lines, the desirable number has increased to six TIs (3 trucks + 2 engines + 1 RIT = 6 TIs). Every company operating, plus each RIT company, should have a TI.
In a small department, this may mean one TI at each station or even one on each apparatus. In larger departments, though, it may mean one per firehouse. You will need to develop a local plan, as there is not a universal approach. Yes, ensuring you have three imagers at each fire is expensive. But, if you really want to use your imagers and get the true value out of them, you must have them regularly available for use. Some of you are thinking, "Easy for you to say we need three?but how can I justify having them sit on companies that don't use them as much?" You have an SCBA for each seat on the apparatus, even if the seat is not occupied, right? Why? In case you need them. A properly used TI can save the life of the firefighter using it, an entire fire company and a civilian?all in the same fire! An SCBA can't do that.
Three thermal imagers on every fireground: Is it a dream? Maybe. But if you truly want to use the technology to its full advantage, it is a dream that you will make a goal.
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.