The Five Most Common Myths Of Thermal Imaging

Errant information related to thermal imaging seems to permeate the fire service. I am not sure what causes this, but it seems like several topics simply will not die and keep getting reintroduced. What bothers me most is that, often times, these...


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Image quality is not everything. Image quality is one thing. Having and using a thermal imager is everything. Each department must make its own decisions about what is most important. Image quality is important as is durability, size, battery life and other considerations; however, no feature is universal, and no feature will satisfy everyone.

Thermal imagers are a major expense for many departments, and most fear buyer’s remorse after the purchase. Most departments want to buy the very best thermal imager they can afford, but I have seen many departments bypass the opportunity to buy an imager because they could not afford the best image quality. Any thermal imager is better than no thermal imager. Image quality is often the primary cost driver in a thermal imager, and it is overrated. If you can afford better image quality, then by all means buy it; however, every thermal imager manufactured for and sold to the fire service has sufficient image quality for navigating a structure, locating victims and identifying secondary means of egress. I don’t care if you go to eBay to buy an imager that is 10 years old if that is all you can afford because even the image quality of a 10-year-old imager is better than no thermal imager at all.

Myth 4: Thermal imaging is complicated

Thermal imagers are technical and complicated. Thermal imaging is neither. One of the best things about a thermal imager is that it is extremely intuitive for the most common tasks such as navigation, victim location and egress. When my kids were smaller, they used to play hide-and-seek with thermal imagers at home (one of the perks of the job) and with no instruction at all they quickly figured out how to spot footprints on the floor in order to find where the other one was hiding. They never questioned navigating. It simply wasn’t an issue.

I am not proposing that the stakes in firefighting are not higher than hide-and-seek; rather, I am trusting that no firefighter would ever enter a structure without being trained in the basics of firefighting. Thermal imagers should never replace basic firefighting skills, but don’t get caught up in the technology trap. If you are interested in how thermal imagers work, then seek the knowledge, but don’t fall victim to the belief that thermal imaging requires extensive, advanced training to use. You should always take advantage of training if you can find it, but using a thermal imager is not complicated.

Myth 5: “I don’t need a thermal imager”

Of course you don’t. Twenty years ago, long coats and high boots were sufficient, and you did not need full turnouts. You don’t need a thermal imager. You can definitely fight fire without them. The question is: “Should you?”

Why would you not take advantage of the ability to see in an otherwise pitch-black environment? Why would you bypass the opportunity to locate a victim faster? Better yet, why would you bypass the opportunity to find one of your own faster? If you were the one trapped and calling a Mayday, would you want your rapid intervention team using a thermal imager? I would. Is it necessary to use a thermal imager to rescue a downed firefighter? No. Is it preferable? Unequivocally.

Again, covering these topics is not meant to be deep. Of course, there is more to talk about on each one; however, as the technology and utilization matures, so too must the understanding. When a technology approaches ubiquity, some buyers take their eye off the ball and fall victim to hype.

As with anything, strive for common sense and sound judgment. If you don’t understand something, seek answers. In the face of a claim that does not pass the sniff test, ask for proof. Challenge everything. Myths and misstatements are standing in the way of broader adoption, and we simply should not stand for this. After all, a firefighter’s life may depend on it.