5 Common Mistakes Of Thermal Imaging

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...


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To illustrate this in training, you can use the following example: think of what a room-temperature floor looks like on a thermal imager. The floor looks black and solid. Now, put an oven-hot cookie sheet on the floor. The white rectangle looks like a hole in the middle of the floor, but it isn’t, as hitting it with a halligan or axe would tell you. You can stand right on it and not fall through the hole. The thermal imager tells you part of the story; with training principles, the full story comes to light.

4. Failing to look up

As we all know, seeing is powerful. If, however, we’re thinking of the thermal imager only in terms of search and rescue (SAR) – to use it to look for a person – we may be encouraged to limit the true capabilities of the imager. When in SAR mode in search of a civilian victim or a fallen firefighter, we know that the person will be down low – perhaps on a chair or on the floor. Because of this, we instinctively angle the thermal imager down to the floor to look for the victim.

When we are engaging an imager solely for this purpose, we are not using the tool as it is designed and could miss other important information that would aid in our search-and-rescue assignment. We could be putting ourselves – and therefore the victim’s chance of recovery – in jeopardy by not paying attention to building integrity by scanning the condition of the walls to examine for warning signs of collapse and to understand the building integrity.

The thermal imager is not even the only part of our equipment that is pushing us to look down. Over time, we’ve learned and conditioned ourselves not to look up, because the brim of the helmet hits the airmask and we normally can’t see anyway, so it was just easier to crawl with the head down. With a thermal imager, because we have additional visibility capabilities, we need to look up in order to fully utilize the tool. Even in SAR mode, we must be aware of what is around us, for our safety and the safety of the person for whom we are searching.

5. Forgetting where you came from

When entering a room with a thermal imager to conduct a search, it’s easy to move directly from point A to point B without paying any heed to looking behind. What if the victim made her way close to the door, though? You could walk right by a victim if you are too focused on moving from where you are to where you’re going.

Even with the gift of sight with a thermal imager, when you enter the room, you must do a full 360. Think of it as completing a six-sided search: the wall to the left, the wall to the right, the wall in front, the wall behind, the floor and the ceiling. Pay attention to your entry point as you come into the room. Look back at the point of entry so you can remember what it looked like. If there are multiple doors, I recommend using a system to note the door you entered.

A thermal imager can help in this. You can use a handline to spray water on the door you just entered. This changes its color, so you can identify the door through which you entered by looking for the darker (cooler) door and not forget where you came from. By monitoring the condition of the door throughout the search, you can also be sure that the egress is still clear and that the situation in the fire hasn’t changed or else make alternate plans to get out. n