Thermal Imaging For the Fire Instructor

The job of a fire instructor is often a thankless one. Juggling the various standards of minimum skills assessments while attempting to provide relevant, in-depth training spanning the gamut of operational responsibilities of a multi-discipline department would prove a challenge to almost anyone. Most fire instructors I have met and worked with, however, take this task seriously and dedicate an enormous amount of effort to provide the best quality training possible. Through the use of props, lectures, visual aids, simulators, videos and other supporting items and technologies, these instructors will leave no stone unturned in their quest to engage and educate fellow firefighters. These instructors are always looking for new ways to explain things like fire behavior, direct versus indirect attacks, horizontal versus vertical ventilation tactics and other basic firefighting topics.

Your thermal imager (TI) can help. The TI can assist in the development and explanation of new topics as well as cast a new light on old topics. Imagery from the TI can be used even if you are not teaching about thermal imaging. This month, we will look at exactly how the TI can be used to enhance the development, safety and quality of departmental training.

Adding video & still images

It is always best if you are able to acquire video or still images from your TI. Most TI manufacturers provide some means of getting a video out from their thermal imagers and this can provide the lowest-cost solution. In most situations, you can use a small camcorder that will allow for an external video-in and simply plug the video-out from your TI into this video-in. Wrap the camcorder in a hand towel for a little insulation and drop it into one of the pockets of your turnout gear. The only problem with this setup is that you must deal with the dangling wire between the imager and the camcorder. Most TI manufacturers also offer some sort of optional image or video capture. Although more expensive than the camcorder operation, they offer simplicity of operation and no dangling cord.

Safety and accountability during live burns. Putting a TI into the hands of the fire instructor during live-burn evolutions allows the instructor to monitor building heat conditions, effectiveness of hose stream selection and placement, as well as monitor student activities for unsafe or inappropriate actions. When burning in an acquired structure, the instructor can monitor structural integrity of the ceiling as well as ensure that points of secondary egress remain unobstructed and available for use. If the students are using a thermal imager as part of the evolution, the instructor can monitor the students’ use of the TI to ensure it is being used appropriately.

Monitor student performance during blacked-out conditions. Whether conducting night-time training evolutions or practicing search and rescue training in smoky or completely darkened environments, the TI is an excellent tool to use for tracking and monitoring. Since the TI requires no light to operate, it can generate an image in places where even night vision cannot. This makes it an ideal tool for variable-light environments. Whether it be blacked-out searching of structures or open-field searching, the TI generates a very clear picture despite complicated zero-light conditions.

Shed new light on old topics. No matter how hard you try, it is difficult to explain all phases of fire development in a typical residential fire. Video trainings have tried, but eventually the smoke in the room gets too thick to see, and the narrator continues to explain what is going on even though you cannot see it. With a TI, the smoke is no longer obstructive to visibility. You can use the TI to explain fire behavior, development and decay without the limitations of smoke. It allows students to “close the loop” on the life cycle of a fire from a completely thermal perspective. You can literally watch the ceiling and walls absorb, dissipate and radiate heat while the convected air currents establish themselves and then watch the thermal reaction of the room and the fuel source to direct, indirect or combination attacks.

If you want to address the differences between solid and broken streams, the TI will show you exactly the difference between reach and penetration versus rapid conversion and heat absorption. Old topics become new again, not because the physics or opinions change; rather, because the method of showing and explaining has.

Recognize effects of ventilation. You can also use the TI to visually display the effects of ventilation in a room. Without a TI, the only indication of effective ventilation is whether or not you felt it. With a TI, you can actually see it. If working in a room equipped with a vertical vent, open it and watch what happens to the thermal conditions within the room. Open the door or window and watch what happens to the thermal layers. Apply positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) and again monitor the changes.

What happens when a hose stream is introduced in combination with ventilator efforts? Because the TI sees only heat (not light), you are directly observing how the various ventilation techniques affect the fire situation. This feeds to a direct understanding of ventilation in a very visual way – different than any textbook could deliver.

Whether teaching TI skills or merely discussing fire behavior or ventilation tactics, the TI can go a long way towards clarity of understanding as it directly exposes the heat element to the visibility of the learner. Otherwise nebulous topics such as thermal layering or the heat absorption of a particular hose stream become concrete and tangible when you can directly see it. Adding thermal imaging to the instructor toolbox can extend instructional capabilities and enhance student learning.

BRAD HARVEY is the Thermal Imaging Product Manager at Bullard. He is a veteran of public safety as a firefighter, police officer and paramedic and is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor. Harvey has worked as a high-angle rescue instructor and is a certified rescue technician and fire instructor. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you may email him at