Thermal Imaging: Thermal Imagers Key In Search and Rescue

I ’ll never forget that morning. It was a cold day in February. As I drove to the fire station to report for duty, I smelled it – that unmistakable smell of a structure fire. It was a bit foggy and still dark, so I couldn’t tell where the odor was...


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I ’ll never forget that morning. It was a cold day in February. As I drove to the fire station to report for duty, I smelled it – that unmistakable smell of a structure fire. It was a bit foggy and still dark, so I couldn’t tell where the odor was coming from, but I smelled it. I was only two blocks from the station and no sooner had I arrived when we got the call.

As we arrived on scene, the two-story residential had thick, black smoke escaping from every orifice of the upper floor and the police were restraining a hysterical woman who was screaming, “My babies are in there!” It was the way she said it that I remember more than anything else. She was definitive – they were in there. Reflecting on it, I think she already knew what the outcome would be.

I asked her two questions: “How many?” and “Where?” She pointed directly through the front door and said, “Two. Upstairs to the left!”

 

A desperate search

I don’t remember going up the stairs at all, but once at the top, we started a left-hand search. It was hot, and there was not a single moment where we could see anything. We groped for anything that felt like a small body and we ran into everything but a small body. The upstairs felt like it had no layout. Walls were irregular and we could not locate any point of reference. No hallways, no recognizable furniture, no reliable walls – nothing. It wasn’t long before the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) were telling us it was time to go. Hot-bottle swaps were performed at the bottom of the stairs, and we were right back at it. There were two small children up there somewhere.

 

Where’s the second child?

On the second trip up, vertical ventilation was underway. The roof was a challenge, but eventually the smoke lifted a few inches off the floor and by lying flat on our stomachs we could catch hazy glimpses of the room. It did not take long to find the first child. Even though we knew it was too late, we still delivered him to EMS and went back for the second child. Not much later, our second SCBA bottles began to blare and once again, hot-bottle swaps at the foot of the stairs for the second time and right back at it. Then it was hot-bottle swaps for the third time. We could not find the second child. The smoke was still very thick, but the heat was lower with ventilation. We hoped against hope that somehow...

A mutual aid company arrived about that time, equipped with a thermal imager. They met us on the second floor at the top of the stairs, and the lieutenant asked how many victims were left. I told him, “One,” as my low-air alarm sounded for the fourth time that morning. I remember seeing his face through his mask, and he said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find him.” It did not take them long at all to find the second child. It was too late for him too.

I will never forget the screams of the mother each time one of her children was brought from the house. Her screams will stick with me the rest of my life.

Something else sticks with me as well. When that lieutenant from the mutual aid company said, “We’ll find him,” he was confident. He knew they would find that child. In fact, I was so convinced they would find him that I was willing to leave the structure.

This was my first exposure to a thermal imager. I had heard of thermal imagers before, but never could quite understand why I needed a piece of electronic equipment to find fire. I never really knew what thermal imagers did. That day, I saw it. I still did not quite understand how it did it, but I wanted to learn. What I learned was quite literally life- and career-changing.

 

Changing outcomes

Few things have changed the fire service the way the thermal imager has. The ability to see through smoke, regardless of thickness or intensity, can fundamentally change outcomes. Today’s thermal imagers provide images so clear that you may think you are using a video camera. This clarity can lead to improved safety and increased efficiency. Increased efficiency translates to faster suppression times and reduced time-at-risk. Reduced time-at-risk can lead directly to reduced injuries and fatalities. Most importantly, thermal imagers dramatically reduce search times.

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