Thermal Imaging: Deployment – Getting Thermal Imagers Into the "Right Hands"

The term “deploy” has been used in military circles for more than 200 years. It comes from French roots meaning to unroll or unfurl. Random House defines “deploy” as “to arrange in a position of readiness, or to move strategically or appropriately,” and I think that best describes what commonly comes to mind when one uses this word.

The fire service is no stranger to strategic readiness. In this post-9/11 world, the U.S. fire service has taken on a multitude of roles and responsibilities and terms like “all hazards” have come into common use. Although the mission is no longer constrained, the resources with which to accomplish the mission normally are. This is where tough decisions often must be made so that resources are strategically arranged into a position of readiness – deployed.

In the fire service, this deployment can be big and strategic (number of firehouses, number of engines or aerials, number of firefighters), or smaller and more tactical (1½-inch vs. 1¾-inch handlines, circular saws vs. chainsaws). I remember when self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) were stowed in a rear compartment and there were not always enough for every member. Portable radios were kept in chargers at the station and the first two officers to grab them got to be equipped when the alarm sounded – the rest of us just shouted. “Start with a few and get more if necessary” has been the primary method of deployment when financial resources are limited. Deploying thermal imagers is no exception.


How best to deploy

your thermal imagers

How best to deploy thermal imaging is a frequent topic of discussion. A few years ago in this column, I discussed TI deployment models commonly used by fire departments:

• Don’t have a TI at all

• One TI for the entire department

• One TI for each station

• One TI for each piece of apparatus

• One TI for each riding position on each apparatus

At the time, one per riding position was a foreign concept to many; however, prices for TIs have dropped, the market has matured, knowledge has improved and deployment continues. There can be little doubt that thermal imagers save lives – both firefighter and civilian. The more “eyes” in a fire, the less likely things get overlooked or missed. When every firefighter can see, each can identify victims, obstacles, secondary means of egress and other elements necessary for safe navigation.

I recently talked to a fire chief whose department is on the cutting edge of thermal imager deployment. Granted, the chief considers himself to be extremely fortunate. He is in a large city fire department surrounded by departments that believe thermal imagers are necessary tools, and he has obtained the money to equip his department with TIs. Over the course of two years, he has equipped every firefighter with personal-issue TIs and every officer with advanced TIs. According to the chief, 10 years ago, his department purchased its first advanced TI and after seeing the value has expanded to include five advanced TIs (one for each apparatus) and 15 personal-issue TIs (one for each riding position). Five pieces of primary apparatus and 20 thermal imagers!

Of course, owning TIs doesn’t always mean using them. I have heard many firefighters say that although they have a TI on their truck, they don’t always grab it when going into a fire. Almost every year, a firefighter is killed where the TI could have helped, yet it was still in the charger on the truck. The chief I spoke to has standard operating procedures (SOPs) that require firefighters to grab the TI when exiting the truck. Every firefighter dons turnouts and SCBA, carries a TI and makes entry. It’s that easy. This chief realizes that when his firefighters are inside a burning structure, they need to get in and get around, but most importantly, when the time comes, they need to know how to get out, and quickly.


No piece of technology

can replace basic skills

Owning a TI means having a deployment strategy in place. It doesn’t matter if you own one or 20; you must know who is responsible for that TI when entering a structure. Always know where your TI is stored, who’s taking it off the truck and what role the TI plays in fighting fires and then hold that person accountable. If the department has made the investment, it is up to you to provide the return on that investment.

No piece of technology can replace basic skills, nor is it meant to. You can navigate a burning structure without a thermal imager, but you can do it far more efficiently with one, and you can do it all safer. There is no excuse for a dead firefighter with a thermal imager in the charger. n