Search and Rescue

Search and rescue, especially during structure fires, is the most frequently considered thermal imager (TI) use. Success during structure fire rescues, as well as during non-fire incidents, requires regular practice and a basic understanding of how the TI...


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Search and rescue, especially during structure fires, is the most frequently considered thermal imager (TI) use. Success during structure fire rescues, as well as during non-fire incidents, requires regular practice and a basic understanding of how the TI displays information.

0404thermal1.jpg
Photo courtesy of Bullard
This photo demonstrates a thermal imager being used in an exterior search. Even though it is taken during daytime, the victim is shown as white because of the cold ground. Remember, the imager can help at non-fire incidents.

If the thermal imager is deployed early in an incident, it can have a tremendous impact on the search efforts. The importance of early use is matched by the need for skilled use. While any structure fire can test the training and discipline of responding firefighters, the situation will be even more hectic if fire companies encounter a mother screaming that her child is trapped inside the building.

To help ensure successful TI use during searches, consider the following:

1.

2. Develop a deployment plan that ensures the imager is easily reached by members and that it arrives early in an incident. If the TI arrives 15 minutes into an incident, it will probably assist with a recovery, not a rescue.

3. Ensure all members understand the difficulty of interpreting images in and around beds. The SOGs should mandate that all beds are searched and cleared by hand, regardless of the thermal image interpretation.

4. Ensure all members understand that thermal imagers generally do not see through objects. Areas behind doors, furniture and other obstacles need to be cleared from multiple angles or by hand.

5. Use the thermal imager for non-fire search efforts as well. The TI can help locate lost hikers, missing boaters, children who are lost in a forest, or an elderly adult who wanders from a care facility.

Practice Makes Perfect

Effective search techniques require regular practice. Users must gain hands-on experience to understand thermal imagers do not “see through” obstacles and that victims will probably show as gray on the display, rather than white (or hot). Also, victims do not always present in full-form; that is, they can be partially hidden by furniture or curled into a fetal position. Firefighters have to recognize heat signatures that are out of place or indicate the partial shape of a human.

During search drills, consider:

  • Using victims of different temperatures so that firefighters don’t “lock in” on the “whitest” item on the display.

  • Practicing with rescue dummies that have been warmed or cooled prior to being placed inside the search room.

  • Dressing live victims (in non-fire training) in heavy clothing to mask their heat signatures.

  • Partially hiding victims, such as placing them in closets, behind doors, partially under beds, etc. Place a victim in a bathtub, with just an arm hanging over the side. Make the drill difficult, but realistic.

  • Practicing other fireground operations that require tools, while using thermal imagers at the same time. Many firefighters will perform searches while they do other tasks, such as advancing a hoseline or forcing doors open.

Table Talk

The presidential primaries or an upcoming promotional exam might be more interesting fodder for the kitchen table, but a company officer can quiz his or her firefighters to describe how a victim will appear on a thermal imager:

0404thermal2.jpg
Photo courtesy of Bullard
Figure 1. This image shows a bed. It is clear that there is a heat signature under the bed. While it is not obviously a human, it is a warm heat source that is out of place. Additionally, firefighters expect to find people, especially children, under beds. Most firefighters will identify that the area under the bed requires further search. There are two children in this image. Do you see the second child?

0404thermal3.jpg
Photo courtesy of Bullard
Figure 2. This image shows the search of a hot hallway and stairway. There is a form in the corner that vaguely resembles a human. Adult fire victims are frequently found near exits, or in the pathways to exits. However, the form is not white, which is how humans appear on the imager in normal environments. Does this deserve further investigation?

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