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Thermal imagers are continually becoming more common in firefighting operations and the list of applications for which the devices are being used continues to grow. From search and rescue to fire attack to size-up and overhaul to motor vehicle accidents and beyond, thermal imagers help firefighters to do what we can’t on our own: see through smoke, identify hot spots, monitor building conditions, locate victims and much more.
While thermal imagers can certainly make the job safer and more efficient, it gets very tempting to abandon the basics. You must be disciplined enough not to abandon standard operating procedures (SOPs) and critical firefighting training tactics learned in fire school. You must stay focused on the task at hand and treat the thermal imager as the tool it was designed to be to help us do our job better and safer. Never let the thermal imager tempt you to fall for any of these common mistakes.
1. Walking straight into danger
One of the first things you were likely taught for conducting interior searches is to maintain a reference point. Right-hand and left-hand search patterns became second nature because staying on the wall gives you a common point of reference, identifies secondary points of egress and builds a mental map of the room. With this mental map, one can maintain orientation and reverse the map when the time comes to leave.
When armed with the bright, pixelated display of a thermal imager, however, we can neglect this approach. Once we can see, it is easy to think we don’t need to rely on tactile senses and discipline borne from “blindness.” The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and with the ability to see what’s in front of us, we can walk that line. But this can allow us to walk directly into danger.
While the thermal imager should help to guide the way, what would you do if something happens to it? What if it is dropped or if the battery runs out? Without the knowledge of a reference point, it is easy to find yourself lost in the middle of the structure.
2. Relying solely on the imager
Avoid tunnel vision. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the ability to see can be the very thing that blinds us on a firefighting scene by distracting us from the task at hand. The ability to see through smoke can take focus away from the reason we’re on the scene, if we let it. When entering a structure, what is important? To me, it is fivefold, in no particular order:
• Understanding the building condition
• Searching for and finding the victim(s)
• Identifying the source of the fire/heat
• Maintaining crew integrity
• Looking for a secondary means of egress in case conditions deteriorate
The desire to minimize search times by relying solely on a thermal imager can slow you down. Using the imager to help you to concentrate on (rather than letting it distract you from) the most important things should dramatically reduce search time.
3. Failing to understand building integrity
When entering a building, if heat or smoke conditions don’t force us to crawl, we all have the instinct to stand up and walk. Typically, it is smoke and the inability to see that demands crawling. With a thermal imager, however, we can see. When we see shades of black, white and gray beneath us, we assume it’s the floor. While it’s nice to know the relative temperature differences of the area below us, we still need to verify what the black/white is. Otherwise, we might walk in and assume the floor is solid. The black/white represents the temperature of something; not necessarily the floor.
Without a thermal imager, when we are unable to “see,” we pound the floor with an axe, halligan or pike pole to ensure it is a stable surface before entering. With an imager, we can see a shade of black/white and assume it’s a floor. To ensure our safety, however, we need to interpret the image we see on the imager display and yet still verify the surface’s integrity. After establishing physically that it is a solid surface, we can use the imager to monitor color changes to understand any changes that might be affecting the integrity of the structure.