A thermal imager is assisting firefighters in overhaul by identifying hot spots.
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Bullard
Imagine a fire department ordering a new engine without planning which firehouse it will occupy, what type of response area it will cover, the type of hose it will carry, or what lengths and types of pre-connects it needs. This is a disaster in the making. Planning the deployment and use of tools and assets is critical to their effective use. Thermal imagers (TIs) require proper planning to ensure accessibility and use at every possible incident.
There are three key components to deploying thermal imagers. First, a department must decide which apparatus are assigned imagers. Second, the department must decide where in each apparatus to place an imager. Third, the department must determine how to utilize a potentially limited resource during an incident.
Department officials should consider the following:
2. Thermal imagers on fire companies generally get used more than thermal imagers in officers’ vehicles. Firefighters will use the tool that travels with them more often than the tool that requires waiting for a chief to arrive. Fire companies frequently arrive before an officer’s vehicle, which means a company-mounted TI can be used earlier in the incident.
3. Accessibility enhances usability. If the TI is mounted in a rear compartment, behind the rope-hose tools and the hose clamp, it will stay there until overhaul, if it comes off the apparatus at all. Placing the TI inside the crew compartment places it in view and improves the likelihood that members will take it with them.
4. Dead batteries prevent an imager from working. If it is available from the manufacturer, a truck-mount charging system should be used to ensure that the battery in the imager and the spare battery are always ready for work.
5. One TI probably isn’t enough. The engine company needs an imager to advance more safely and find victims more easily. The truck company needs an imager for ventilation, overhaul and victim searches. The rapid intervention team needs an imager if it is called to rescue a fellow firefighter so that the members can find their colleague more quickly. The goal should be to have three imagers at every fire.
6. Develop clear standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for TI use, and train all members on the SOGs.
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s not just placement, but also practice that ensures appropriate deployment of a thermal imager. Members must practice taking the TI off the apparatus at every incident to build the habit of employing it at every response. The members of every company assigned an imager should practice all of their fireground duties with and without the imager.
For apparatus placement, consider:
- Securing the imager near the person assigned to carry it.
- Leaving enough clearance to place and remove the imager with ease, especially in the “heat of battle.”
- Allowing clearance for any accessories attached to or stored with the imager.
- Ensuring all charging and indicator lights are visible to members.
For incident placement, consider:
- Supplying interior companies with imagers first, since they are at the most risk.
- Placing the imager based on priorities. If there is no civilian life risk, then the imager should be used in fire attack.
- Assigning the imager to the rapid intervention team if firefighters are operating inside, due to the life risk involved in the operation.
- Aiding aerial operations with the TI in poor visibility and tight spaces.
- Aiding roof operations at night and in poor visibility.
- Assigning imagers to operating companies rather than to relief companies or chief officers.
Firefighters can review aspects of TI deployment. Ask members:
- Which companies are assigned thermal imagers?
- Where are thermal imagers and their spare batteries stored?
- Who on the thermal imaging companies is assigned to carry the TI?
- If the imagers are stored on chiefs’ cars, where are they and how do firefighters access them?
- If the company has a thermal imager, who carries it and where does it go if the company is first in? Second in? Fourth in?
Successful real-world deployment involves planning, creativity and practice. Plan the placement of imagers carefully, both in choosing which companies receive them as well as where they are placed on those companies. Mistakes are reversible, but the natural inertia of a fire department could prevent those improvements for weeks or months. Prior to permanently mounting the imager and its holder, make “dry runs” to evaluate the location.
Once the imager is mounted, ensure that all members who may be assigned to that company are trained on how to remove the imager, how to monitor charger status and how to operate the imager itself. Perform fireground operations, including scene-arrival drills, to practice carrying the imager while performing other tasks.
Plan your deployment before placing a thermal imager into service. The author’s experience around North America suggests that imagers on fire companies get more use than imagers on chiefs’ cars. Balance the extremes, determining which is more important:
- Having the imager arrive 10 to 15 minutes into the incident, but arriving on every scene.
- Having the imager arrive on the first or second company 60% of the time.
Unless a department has an imager assigned to every apparatus and chief, there will always be a balancing act. While having more than one TI on scene is optimal, for the reasons discussed earlier, most departments are forced to make choices. Choose a balance that emphasizes use, then work on getting more thermal imagers.
Jonathan Bastian is the thermal imaging training manager at Bullard. He leads the training team, whose primary effort is to educate the fire service on the safe and proper use of thermal imagers. Bastian 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. Bastian is happy to answer any questions about thermal imaging; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.