Thermal Imaging Training - Covering The Basics

While most Fire Service training follows standards or official references established by the National Fire Protection Association, this is not yet the case for thermal imaging.


The last three articles written for this column addressed the common misperceptions associated with thermal imagers (TIs). One of the best ways to dispel these myths and to help firefighters clearly understand and apply the technology is to provide them proper training. To review, some of the common misperceptions are:

  • Anything white on a TI means fire or hot spot
  • Fire victims will be displayed as white
  • TIs will see through windows and walls to find victims faster
  • Temperature readout is accurate
  • TIs indicate air temperature
  • Microbolometers are new technology
  • Newer is better
  • TIs are useful only at structure fires for overhaul and search
  • TIs make firefighters safe
  • The TI will identify everything in the structure

Left uncorrected, these misperceptions can lead to improper or unsafe use of thermal imaging, placing firefighters at increased risk. For example, believing that "TIs make firefighters safe" may lead a firefighter to advance into a structure without a hoseline or rope line. This misperception may also convince him that he can stand and walk inside a structure fire. To maximize the potential of the technology, and to do it safely, firefighters must receive thermal imaging training before TIs are put into service, and they should be involved in regular ongoing training activities to reinforce safe and effective use of thermal imaging.

While most Fire Service training follows standards or official references established by the National Fire Protection Association, this is not yet the case for thermal imaging. To fill this gap, some state fire academies have developed training plans. There is also an organization, the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association, that has established training for police departments. In general, though, there are few firm or established guidelines for fire departments. As a result, department officials may find it challenging to determine the best approach. Departments can seek training assistance from private agencies, state agencies and TI manufacturers. However the training program is designed, it should include classroom training and hands-on training (preferably in realistic firefighting conditions).

Key Points of Classroom Training

Review Unit Operating Procedures
In this important foundation-building step, students should master all operating procedures of the unit, including turning it on, changing or charging batteries, activating transmitters or other special features, and conducting standard inspection and maintenance procedures. As part of the maintenance review, ensure that the department's battery charging and rotation system are explicitly stated. This simple task must be standardized, especially for departments not using a charging truck mount system, to ensure functionality of the tool. Fire departments will encounter problems if each shift or officer is left to determine its own battery charging procedures. As a result, this should also be addressed as part of the standard operating guideline (SOG).

This is also the time for the instructor to make sure firefighters can operate the unit in zero visibility just like any other piece of equipment they use when fighting a fire. Include training that verifies the ability of firefighters to perform emergency procedures, such as changing a battery, in blackout conditions with firefighting gloves.

Explain the Basics of Thermal Imaging
Before firefighters use TIs on the job, they should learn the basics of thermal imaging technology. Just as firefighters must understand fire behavior to perform effective suppression and ventilation, they should have a basic knowledge of how a TI functions. They should understand the properties of infrared energy, infrared emitters, heat transfer and what to expect from temperature measurement devices. (For more details on temperature measurement, see Myth #4 in the January 2003 issue of this column.) The instructor should explain key principals such as reflection, thermal contrast, and thermal inversion. These topics can be a significant challenge for new TI users who are learning to interpret thermal images. It is critical that firefighters realize how infrared radiation behaves in comparison to visible light, as well as the difference between the way a thermal imager develops images using thermal energy and the way the human eye develops images using light. As with all good training, the instructor should clearly explain the practical use of the information in everyday operations.

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