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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