Thermal Imaging:A Vital Tool For Extinguishing Any Fire

When people think of firefighters, they often think about them running into burning buildings and risking their lives to save others. Movies and TV glamorize this aspect of the job and attach a certain hero status to it.

All of us who work in the fire service know it takes a certain kind of crazy to run into a burning building, but why is this behavior glamorized when it represents such a small part of the job? Because the average citizen needs to believe this. At the very basic levels of human psychology, physiological needs are foundational and immediately followed by the need for safety. The thought of being trapped in one’s own home while it burns threatens both of these foundational issues – safety and dying – and one coping mechanism for this threat is the belief that someone is there who can protect or rescue them should that situation arise.

Use the TI every time

Fire suppression is the job the public most commonly associates with being a firefighter. When lives and property are at risk, firefighters rush in and rescue victims, save lives and restore order. Yet, during these critical activities, some firefighters refuse to take the TI, even though it dramatically improves speed, efficiency and, most important, safety. The importance of speed and safety cannot be overlooked. The faster the firefighter can move, the faster victims can be located, the faster the seat of the fire can be located and the faster the situation can be controlled – all reducing the time spent at risk.

So, how do you deploy your thermal imager (TI)? Does it come off the apparatus every time or is only when you “think you will need it”? What about at structure fires? Does the TI come off the apparatus for every fire or only the “really big ones”? All too often, I hear stories or see examples of the TI being left behind at structure fires. In some cases, it seems the TI is being relegated to non-fire, investigative calls rather than used during fire attack. I have heard a variety of reasons for this (“It slows me down,” “It’s just one more thing to carry,” “I don’t need it,” etc.), but suffice it to say that, although your TI is valuable in many non-fire calls, it is never more valuable than when it is used in structural firefighting.

During fire attack, a TI can show thermal layers that would otherwise be invisible to a firefighter. These thermal layers can often be seen throughout the structure, despite being several rooms away from the fire itself. A TI can indicate a safe path for advancement, locate secondary means of egress and identify the location of the heaviest fire.

When and how to deploy

Successful use of the TI in fire attack requires fire departments to plan TI deployment both strategically and tactically. It is challenging in many departments to determine the best deployment arrangement. Let’s consider the following when using a TI in support of fire suppression:

• Be sure your TI is on the first apparatus to arrive on the scene. A TI can assist in fire attack only if it is on scene when the first line is stretched. If your thermal imager is arriving on the third or fourth fire company, it cannot help in fire attack.

• For most departments, the first-in engine has more tasks than manpower. Develop a system for carrying the TI that is compatible with your staffing. Assign the TI to a specific person (or seat) so that it comes off the engine immediately. Use a truck-mount system in the cab to ensure the TI is not left in a compartment when the crew is stretching its line.

• Know how to recognize thermal layers and thermal columns on your TIs. “Seeing” the thermal layer can help firefighters predict pre-flashover conditions. Following the “flow” of a thermal column back to its origin can lead firefighters directly to the source of the fire. Thermal images and thermal imaging videos help firefighters recognize these key features, especially if frequent live-fire training is not available.

• Firefighters cannot rely on the TI as their only means of orientation. Use your TI as a tool to enhance your normal procedures, not replace them.

• Practice, practice, practice and train, train, train. This training does not need to be topical to the thermal imager; rather, the TI can be integrated into all of your other training topics. If you are training on search and rescue, ventilation, hazmat or fire attack, make sure the TI is a part of that training.

Advancing hoselines

One of the biggest challenges in using the TI for fire attack is coordinating TI usage with hoseline advancement. Setting some time aside to practice a few company drills can help perfect operations while allowing the company to become more comfortable with the thermal imager.

Decide who will be responsible for the TI. The nozzleman? The second firefighter on the line? The company officer? There are pros and cons to each, but practice and decide ahead of time. Practice stretching dry attack lines into the apparatus bay. Firefighters can be assigned to specific seats to ensure that each firefighter gets practice leading out the attack line or backing up the line while carrying the TI. Have the hose team practice advancing the line and simulating area scans with the TI.

Remember, as the team advances, the person using the TI cannot fall victim to tunnel vision. They cannot stare at the TI display the whole time. They should use the TI to orient themselves and the team, and then secure the TI while helping to advance the line. Be sure the firefighter with the TI verbalizes observations with the rest of the company; there is a natural human instinct to assume that others see what you see.

Unique fire risks

After practicing hoseline advancement with the TI, discuss some of the unique fire risks in your response areas and how they may affect your hose advancement. Are there structures that may require you to bring additional tools along? How are these extra tools carried to ensure that the TI is easily accessible? How can the TI assist in applying or using these special tools?

Your TI can be a vital tool for extinguishing any fire; not just those that are hidden or difficult to locate. Proper use and image interpretation can help firefighters advance more quickly and more safely into the structure, as well as find and extinguish the fire more efficiently. Efficiency in locating and extinguishing the fire gets the firefighter out of harm’s way quicker, reduces time at risk and has a significant impact on firefighter safety.

If there is smoke, there is fire, and if there is fire, there should be a thermal imager every time. n