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 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.

In my current role, I have heard the story hundreds of times: using a thermal imager let us find the victim immediately. The speed with which firefighters can move in a structure using a thermal imager is much faster than the crawling, groping method. Time is of the essence when victims are trapped and using a thermal imager is a huge benefit for both the firefighter and the victim. Preserving life is the ultimate goal.

If the thermal imager is deployed early in an incident, it can have a tremendous impact on the search efforts. The importance of early use is matched by the need for skilled use. If you understand what you are seeing on your thermal imager, you can use the information to adapt your tactics to the rapidly changing environment commonly found inside a burning structure.


Success in searches

To ensure successful thermal imager use during searches, consider these points:

• Develop standard operating guidelines (SOGs) – Develop clear SOGs for thermal imager use and train all members to these guidelines. The first guideline is simple – take the imager with you. Too many times, firefighters leave the thermal imager on the apparatus thinking they will come back for it “if we need it.”

• Develop a deployment plan – Develop a deployment plan that ensures the imager is easily reached by members and that it arrives early in an incident. When you pull up on the scene and see thick, black smoke pouring from the structure and flames leaping from the windows, it is easy, in that adrenaline-soaked moment, to bypass additional equipment. Get in there, get to it and knock it out, but don’t forget the thermal imager.

• Learn to interpret images – Ensure all members understand the difficulty of interpreting images, particularly in and around beds. A fire victim wrapped in sheets, blankets and comforters can be very difficult to detect with a thermal imager. The very fact that your bedding keeps you warm is a testament to its insulative quality. If it is good at keeping heat in, then it must be poor at letting heat out. SOGs should mandate that all beds are searched and cleared by hand, regardless of the thermal imager interpretation.



While the thermal imager will make search-and-rescue efforts easier and faster, the imager should not supplant the standard practice of right- or left-hand search patterns to maintain orientation. Thermal imagers generally do not see through objects. Areas behind doors, furniture and other obstacles must be cleared from multiple angles or by hand. Firefighters absolutely, positively must remain proficient at basic firefighting skills. Thermal imaging is a valuable technological tool, but thermal imagers will not put out the fire. Firefighters must engage in solid, fundamental firefighting to ensure their own safety and the proper completion of their goals.

The coroner’s report established the time of death of our two small victims as well before our arrival, so the thermal imager would not have made much difference in our case; however, that did not stop us from finally acquiring imagers. We had resisted far too long at that point, and no firefighter should ever have to go through that experience again. n