Thermal Imaging: How Far We Have Come

We increasingly hear the words “Full Deployment” used in fire service circles. With origins tracing to the military, the term and variations of it have crept into public service, manufacturing and even information technology. It does have a nice ring to it. With the fire service being paramilitary in nature, this term resonates.

Yet, in the context of firefighting thermal imaging, what exactly does Full Deployment mean? To answer this, let’s take a look at the history of thermal imaging in the North American fire service.

Life-saving innovation

Starting around 1997, fire departments begin to crave (and purchase) a new technology that could see through smoke. What self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) gave to firefighters in the way of respiratory survival, the thermal imager (TI) gave in the way of sight. Not only could firefighters survive in an Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) environment, but they could now see their way through a structure.

Progressive fire departments were the first to jump on board, purchasing and deploying often a single TI for their departments. Other departments saw the trend and followed suit. This was the beginning of thermal imaging technology gaining a legitimate foothold in the fire service.

As these departments saw the value in TIs, they deployed them for specific operations, such as strictly for search and rescue. Other departments used them exclusively for overhaul. Fire departments realized that when a TI was not at an incident, or at least not at the initial portion of an incident, this was a missed opportunity. Fire departments acknowledged that they needed this critical tool available at the station responsible for responding to a particular call. This led the transition to equipping each station with a thermal imager.

Time passed and departments began using thermal imaging technology in more ways and even more frequently. As departments found more consistent uses for TIs, more were needed. Quite often, the first piece of equipment off the truck was the TI, and it wasn’t just used in search and rescue and overhaul, but also in fire attack, size-up and hazmat responses. Those of us observing the fire service closely heard comments like, “We need one on every apparatus” or “Our firefighters depend on this technology on every call.”

The capability and versatility of the tool led to progressive departments deploying TIs on every apparatus. No matter which vehicle rolled out the door, it was equipped with thermal imaging technology. Today, it is common to see a TI on every apparatus.

So when will we see a thermal imager deployed to each firefighter? We are likely several years away from SCBA-scale deployment, but the technology is too important and too enabling not to eventually be standard equipment for every on-duty firefighter. There was a time when one SCBA per apparatus was the norm. Today, at least in most career fire departments, every firefighter on duty has an SCBA designated for him or her. As prices continue to drop and products become even easier to use, TIs, like SCBA, will be part of every firefighter’s ensemble. One retired chief recently said to me, “We use thermal imagers so often, and the benefits are so great, that we need to find a way to deploy them at every riding position. In years past, the technology was cost-prohibitive, but the prices keep falling. Now, this goal is in reach.”

In 1997, TIs cost more than $20,000 apiece. Today, smaller, lighter, better-designed products start at less than $5,000. For some departments, thermal imaging deployment to each on-duty firefighter is achievable now; for many others, it’s on the horizon.

A TI in the hands of each crew member means more eyes on the fire. It lends more ability to quickly find victims. It provides a better chance to identify fire before it overwhelms a structure. A TI for every firefighter gives everyone the ability to navigate on his own and safely evacuate when needed, while enabling officers to maintain visual accountability of the crew at all times. A TI for every firefighter equals a safer fire service.

We’ve come a long way from the days when thermal imagers were a strange novelty item used by only a few trusted souls within a fire department. This powerful tool is being used by ordinary firefighters on the simplest as well as the most exotic calls, and somewhere it saves a life every single day.

“Full Deployment.” It’s a catchy term. For thermal imaging, it’s coming sooner than you might think. n