We are all keenly aware of the importance of our basic senses and how they impact our everyday lives. This is particularly true for firefighters. A firefighter’s sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight are vital to staying safe and healthy.
Those who have limited capabilities in any of these areas tend to compensate by increasing reliance on one or more of their remaining basic senses. Firefighters, however, need all of these basic senses to conduct their jobs safely and effectively. Let’s run through what these senses mean for firefighters.
The sense of touch is a job requirement for firefighting. If firefighters were not able to process heat, cold, textures, structures, equipment controls or human contact, they would be incapable of performing their jobs. Similarly, if firefighters were unable to hear the early warning sounds of a structural collapse, critical radio traffic, another firefighter’s PASS device or a victim’s call for help, their lives and the lives of others would be endangered.
As individuals, we have differences in our ability to accurately identify smells. Some firefighters are able to detect the slightest hint of natural gas or faint traces of smoke, while others are often unaware of strong smells until someone tells them.
How many times has your department responded to a call involving an odor of smoke in a building and one firefighter comments upon entry, “the source smells electrical,” and another firefighter cannot make the same determination? Or, your department responds to a carbon monoxide call and a firefighter detects the odor of unburned hydrocarbons from poor combustion. Since carbon monoxide itself is odorless, what is this firefighter really smelling, if anything? The precision of our olfactory sense can vary dramatically. For firefighting, the sense of taste may be the least important, but it’s intertwined with the sense of smell, and these senses function together to give us early warning of airborne dangers.
Arguably the sense that has been augmented the most in recent years as it relates to the job of firefighting is sight. Because they detect heat energy, specifically long-wave infrared energy, and are largely unaffected by smoke, fog, and other particulates, firefighting thermal imagers (TIs) bolster our senses and improve decision-making capabilities. The TI is a critical tool because it enables firefighters to see through dense smoke, displaying an image of a firefighter’s surroundings on a bright video screen that is usually visible even in heavy smoke conditions.
During a fire when smoke conditions block a firefighter’s ability to see with his or her eyes or with the aid of a flashlight, TIs process infrared heat signatures from objects as benign as walls or tables to conditions as serious as fire, restoring sensory understanding. Using TIs, firefighters can navigate through structures and even analyze heat and fire conditions to determine fire source and spread and facilitate a safer, more effective mitigation of the fire event.
By many, sight is perceived as the most precious of the senses. It enables us to process information quickly and, often without even being consciously aware, establish a verdict of “safe” or “dangerous.” Under normal conditions, to see and process visual cues is a routine matter, but firefighters often function in limited-sight environments where these typical cues may no longer be available.
When visually impaired, firefighters attempt to compensate by using other senses. While these other senses can be powerful, they’re often muted when a firefighter is fully decked out in turnout gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Touch is obscured by heavy clothing and equipment that cover every part of the body. Hearing is similarly constrained and made worse by the various foreign and confusing sounds involved in firefighting. Taste and smell are usually limited to the air coming from an SCBA bottle. The reality is that when it gets really tough, firefighters need their sense of sight.
The environment of firefighting is complex and disorienting. Though the modern firefighter is protected better than ever before, it comes at a price. Burning ears and twitchy noses have been dulled by protective equipment. Once deemed too expensive by many departments, the TI has filled an interesting role beyond the obvious one of providing sight to navigate. It also helps firefighters gain a situational awareness lacking due to the diminishing of other sensory inputs.
Considering the evolution to a reliance on sight, TIs should really be standard equipment for every firefighter. For those who research new technologies, including the author of this column, maybe it’s time to work on augmenting the firefighter’s other senses as well. n