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I am sure it has happened to your fire department. Two o’clock in the morning and the police want you to set up the aerial so they can get overhead photos of a crime scene or they need to borrow a ladder so they can check the roof of a building near a robbery to see if the suspect threw his gun up there. They call you after the tow trucks have hauled the cars away because they need to borrow some of the “kitty litter” you carry on the truck. They call you because they arrived on a “check-the-welfare” call and the foul odor they noticed from the front porch is a hint that entry will need to be forcible. I know they call you out because they want to borrow your thermal imager.
I have worked with many police departments to integrate thermal imaging into their operations. Although there are several companies that make thermal imagers specialized for police and/or military roles, the most common response I receive from police is, “If we need one, we will just borrow an imager from the fire department.” So, since it seems likely that you will be called out to assist the police with a thermal imager at some point, I thought it would be helpful to look at the eight most common activities for which police use thermal imagers.
• Fugitive searches. The ability to locate, at a distance, fleeing or hiding suspects is clearly helpful for apprehension. Dark or camouflaged clothing can make bad guys extremely difficult to discern from their surroundings. With a thermal imager, you can locate a suspect regardless of camouflage or dark clothing and you can cover large areas at a single glance, unlike a flashlight that has a limited cone of visibility within the beam of light.
• Scene safety. With a thermal imager, a quick “scene survey” can be conducted from some distance away. You could easily identify anyone outside the residence, as well as dogs or other animals present on the property. Or you find an unconscious individual lying in the middle of a park. Is the assailant still in the area or did he flee when he heard the sirens? Find out. A quick thermal scan of the area can tell you whether you are alone or you need to prepare to defend yourself.
• Surveillance activities. The more savvy criminals (if there are such people) have caught on to standard surveillance techniques. They know that most surveillance is done with binoculars, video cameras or night-vision devices. These criminals have taken to using high-powered lights to conceal their business. None of the above-mentioned surveillance techniques is effective against this practice. Thermal imaging, on the other hand, does not react to light. A thermal imager cannot “see” light. You can now look past the headlights and see clearly what is going on. You can even record it for evidence at trial.
• Hidden compartments. Let’s start off here by making one thing perfectly clear, and I think you already know this. A thermal imager will not see through anything. It is not X-ray vision. It sees only heat being radiated from surfaces. It is easy to become misled. Look at any interior wall (made of drywall) and you can plainly see the studs that support that drywall. However, what you are actually seeing is the thermal interaction of the stud with the drywall; not the stud itself.
Finding hidden items
It is common for contraband to be hidden during transport or shipping. Using a thermal imager, you can spot thermal irregularities and interactions that don’t appear normal. While this may not be a dead giveaway that there is or is not a hidden compartment, it can definitely focus your attention to the area that is abnormal. Split fuel tanks, hollow body panels that are stuffed full, loaded tires and even automotive body fillers and putties are easily identifiable under a thermal inspection.