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T he job of an incident commander can be trying. Coordinating a scene full of firefighters, apparatus and other resources, often from multiple agencies, while performing a multitude of tasks in an environment where those decisions can make the difference between life and death is a lot to ask. Being responsible for the safety of everyone involved as well as the successful outcome of an often rapidly evolving and unpredictable incident would be enough to make most people consider doing something else.
The demands placed on an incident commander can be overwhelming; however, accurate, timely and reliable information is the backbone of most good fireground decisions, and your thermal imager can help with that. Your thermal imager can supply quite a bit of information that would otherwise be unavailable. Better yet, it can supply this information faster than just about any other means. Many departments have come to realize this benefit and are deploying thermal imagers in chiefs, battalion chiefs or deputy chief’s vehicles in an effort to make any and all pertinent information available to incident commanders.
I know what you are thinking: Why would an incident commander need a thermal imager? This column looks at various types of incidents at which a thermal imager can provide valuable information to the incident commander.
Using a thermal imager for scene size-up and assessment can give the incident commander additional information that is helpful in establishing the incident objectives. With the naked eye, you may see smoke coming from the eaves and the gable end of a single-story house, but when evaluated with the thermal imager, you can see much more. With the thermal imager, you may notice heat patterns on the outside of the structure. When you look to the roof, you may notice a strong heat signature (some portion of the roof being much warmer than other portions of the roof) to accompany the visible smoke. You realize that this structure would benefit from aggressive vertical ventilation; however, heat signatures like what you see before you take some time to develop, and we all know about gusset plates and heat exposure. Although it may take extra time, awaiting the setup of an aerial for ventilation purposes may be warranted.
The primary consideration in evaluating structures from the outside is the impact of the sun. If you are evaluating structures during daylight, you must account for the effect of sunlight. If the roof of the home is fully exposed to sunlight, yet you see a distinct pattern where parts of the roof are warmer than others, this is an indication (but not proof) of a fire in the attic area. If the pattern of sunlight closely matches the thermal pattern you see on the thermal imager, then the roof may simply be heated by the sun – an indication that the fire may not have vented to the attic yet.
Ventilation efforts can also be evaluated with a thermal imager. Whether vertical or horizontal, positive or negative pressure, with a thermal imager you can actually discern how much heat is coming out of the vent point as opposed to simply how much smoke is coming out. Abrupt changes to the amount of heat exiting a vent point also signal abrupt changes to the interior conditions as well.
Brushfires can also be an ideal place for incident commander deployment of thermal imagers. Now, I am not talking about the type of wildland firefighting that our brothers and sisters deal with out west that requires air tankers. Although thermal imagers are useful in those incidents as well, that’s a topic for another column. I am talking about agricultural or suburban-type brushfires – the kind that occur in a department that owns one or two brush trucks, some water vests and a couple of those rubber mats tied to a broom handle. If you have ever been to soybean field fire just before harvest, you have seen what heavy smoke looks like.