Myths vs. Reality in Thermal Imaging - Part III

While TIs have repeatedly proven themselves to be invaluable, life-saving tools for the fire service, they are like any other tool in that they need to be used properly.

In January and March 2003, we examined the first eight myths of thermal imaging. This month, we wrap up this series with two final common myths, including one suggested by a reader. As mentioned before, if your thermal imagers (TIs) are not performing as you thought they would, or if they do things that do not make sense to you, please contact me at We can address the issue here, as there may be other readers experiencing similar issues who can learn from your experiences.

Myth #9-TIs Make Firefighters Safe

This is probably the most common, and potentially most dangerous, misconception about thermal imaging in the fire service. First, let me be clear: TIs do help make firefighters safer! The challenge is that TIs cannot -in and of themselves- make firefighters safe.

Historically, firefighters have crawled through involved structures due to three main factors. First, before SCBAs became standard equipment, firefighters had to breathe whatever air was available in the building. Because the cleanest, coolest air was closer to the floor, firefighters took steps to place themselves near the cleaner air. Second, firefighters crawled because their protective gear demanded it. Rubber coats, metal helmets and ? length boots allowed the heat near the ceiling to abuse firefighters who failed to stay low. Last but not least, because the cleaner air near the floor was less smoky, firefighters were able to see better when they crawled near the floor.

Times are different now. Mandatory SCBA use ensures that firefighters can breathe regardless of where the cleanest, coolest air is. Modern materials, NFPA standards and almost-universal use of bunker gear means that firefighters can be exposed to greater heat levels, without even recognizing the brutal environment around them. Finally, with a TI, a firefighter can now "see" through the smoke. In short, technology has removed most of the obstacles that make a firefighter want to stay low in a structure fire.

Technology has not removed the risks inherent in firefighting, however. Technology hasn't eliminated the risk of flashover and it doesn't prevent the regular occurrence of rollover down the hallway. Technology has not strengthened stairwell or floor construction under fire conditions (one could argue technology has actually made them worse). The reality is that even though a firefighter can breathe, feel little heat and see throughout a building, a structure fire is still a very hostile environment. The TI removes the firefighter's last major obstacle: lack of sight.

To avoid fooling themselves into thinking they are "safe," firefighters must train regularly, practicing basic firefighting skills in conjunction with TI use. "Sight" regained through the use of a TI should help improve search speed and accuracy, but it should not replace standard search practices. Fire companies still need to bring a hoseline or search rope with them, despite the fact that they have a TI in hand. Companies still must negotiate their way through a building by using a traditional left- or right-hand search, maintaining constant contact with an exterior wall as well as a mental map of the structure. All the while, they need to do this the old-fashioned way: by crawling.

Maintaining basic skills is critical for two reasons. First, it reinforces to the firefighter that he is in a hostile environment and needs to exercise due care and caution. Second, this ensures that firefighters have a way out of the building should the TI be lost for any reason. For the most part, a person who uses his eyesight to get into a building is reliant on his eyesight to get out. Turning back on a search line and reversing a left-hand search are guaranteed ways to lead a team out of a building. Firefighters and their officers owe themselves a guaranteed way out.

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