Thermal Imager Training: Non-Traditional Uses

For most fire companies, the majority of responses are to non-fire incidents. Therefore, to maintain solid image interpretation skills, firefighters must find additional opportunities to use thermal imagers.


November's Firehouse thermal imager training article discussed the non-traditional uses of thermal imagers. The objective of the article was to foster creative thinking in the firehouse about how and where a thermal imager can be used to improve the effectiveness of a non-fire response.

For most fire companies, the majority of responses are to non-fire incidents. Therefore, to maintain solid image interpretation skills, firefighters must find additional opportunities to use thermal imagers. Non-fire incidents are an excellent source of experience. Because non-fire incidents are much more frequent, using a TI during these incidents keeps skill levels high. Additionally, the TI can also make certain incident responses shorter and more successful.

The Firehouse article identifies several success stories from around the USA, and none of them are related to actual structure fires. One of them involved identifying residual heat in a car seat to find a missing patient. While "hot seat" checks can be helpful at motor vehicle accidents, keep in mind that they are not foolproof. The residual heat from a vehicle's passenger will be visible to a TI for varying amounts of time. The length of time during which a person was in the seat will affect how much heat he leaves behind. For example, if the person was picked up just before the accident, then he may not have left residual heat. Or, if the person was just dropped off at home, then he will have left a heat signature even though he was not in the vehicle at the time of the accident. Keep in mind that the type of clothing a person wears will also impact heat transfer. During winter, the transfer of body heat to the seat can take more time than in the spring, when people wear thinner clothing. Time elapse between the accident and your arrival also influences how much residual heat is available for your TI to detect. While every situation is different, you can generally expect residual heat signatures to fade in less than 20 minutes.

We will go further into some additional non-fire uses. The first is from Mississippi. As a tornado raced through a small town, a family of four was sleeping in their home, unaware they were in the direct path of the tornado. The tornado decimated the home, injuring several members. One child, however, was missing. After the tornado passed, the family began a frantic search for the child. Several firefighters arrived in personal vehicles to assist, joining the family in its search with flashlights. The devastation to the home was absolute. Searchers made several unsuccessful passes through the debris field; hope of finding the child began to fade.

Later, ten more firefighters arrived on fire apparatus with the department's two TIs. Realizing that their eyesight was not providing enough information, they scanned the debris field with the a TI. The chief noticed a section of wall that was warmer than the rest of the debris. This heat anomaly, a heat source that is out of place, attracted his attention. The missing, critically injured child was found unconscious under the wall; his body pressed against the sheeting generated enough heat to be detected with the TI. Firefighters on the scene estimate that the TI saved hours of searching for the child, time that probably saved his life.

The second non-traditional use is theoretical; I have not received an actual report, but such an application is practical and feasible. During a confined space rescue, a thermal imager could help significantly with rescuer safety. For example, during a rescue in a machinery space, rescuers could examine the machinery with the TI. Active machinery will generate more heat than inactive machinery. Rescuers can verify that machinery is shut down and cooling off prior to committing themselves. They can also get a full image of the confined space and any potential entrapment hazards. Flashlights may not illuminate the entire space, or shadows may hide significant features. Sharp corners, cables, wires and the like may all appear on the TI, even if they are not visible with flashlights to the human eye. In short, the TI may give the confined space team a more complete picture of the space prior to entry. Better information leads to better planning; better planning promotes firefighter safety.

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