Thermal Imaging: Back to Basics: Learning To Deploy Thermal Imagers

Firefighters spend a lot of time training. This training can include pump and aerial operations, donning of turnout gear, hose extending and pulling drills, forcible entry and victim drags and carries. Most departments would consider these important for training, but how much time do fire departments devote to specific training with thermal imagers (TIs)?
Thermal imaging training shouldn’t just be observing fire behavior and how it looks on the TI’s display. It also includes ensuring that the TI is ready for use, understood by firefighters and deployed in actual firefighting tasks. Some of the basics can be overlooked or taken for granted in training evolutions, but fire departments that ignore them risk that the TI is used ineffectively during emergency operations.

Training scenarios

Deployment – Deploying the TI from an apparatus and attaching it to personal protective equipment (PPE) sounds like a very simple task, but when adrenaline is flowing and the action is furious, it can be mismanaged, costing precious time. Firefighters should practice removing the TI from their apparatus or directly from their apparatus charger if they have one, while wearing the gear they would have on when departing the apparatus. Then, they can practice attaching the TI to their gear. Firefighters should find a place that keeps the TI within easy reach, but does not interfere with performing basic tasks. Because one of the biggest obstacles to effective TI use is actually getting the tool to where it is needed, this deployment and attachment process should be a component of every department’s training procedures.
Operating the TI with gloved hands – Operating a TI with gloved hands sounds easy, but can be challenging during an emergency operation. Firefighters too often do this in non-emergency situations without wearing gloves and fail to realize the increased difficulty of using a TI in emergency operations.
All TIs have buttons that must be manipulated during different stages of emergency operations. Firefighters must become familiar with where the power button is located and practice finding it with a gloved hand in the dark while wearing  self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepiece. This helps firefighters learn to capably do this in a sight-denied situation when the unit has been inadvertently powered off or a battery must be changed. This training should be extended for all buttons on the TI so firefighters are familiar with the buttons, their locations and their functions.
Replacing the battery – This can be challenging, depending on the TI, the size of the battery and where the spare battery is carried. This task is often practiced with no gloves or gear, but firefighters should do this task with gloved hands in the dark while wearing a facepiece to simulate dark and/or smoky conditions.
Live-fire training – Firefighters often get the opportunity to participate in training burns. In these situations, firefighters usually use a TI to observe fire behavior and bypass the search assistance and other capabilities a TI can provide. During training burns, firefighters can better understand the real benefits of a TI so they are able to capitalize on them when a real event occurs.
Here are a few scenarios firefighters can practice during training burns:
Size-up – Firefighters should examine a structure during exterior size-up to locate areas of involvement. If a TI is equipped with special functions and color modes that facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of fire conditions, firefighters should use them at this time.
Fire attack – Crews should use the TI during interior fire operations to find and extinguish the fire, taking note of changes in the TI’s image, such as changing colors that denote high heat and changes in temperature readings. These can help with understanding the level of heat and fire progression.
Search – Search teams can place a “victim” near a heat source to simulate a difficult rescue in fire conditions (with safety considerations in mind). This will force firefighters using the TI to interpret how the image of a victim looks in high heat. It’s important for firefighters to learn to look for human form and body parts that may be partially obscured rather than for specific colors or shades of gray. People usually appear light gray on a TI in normal conditions, but can show up as darker shades when viewed in comparison with high-heat sources. 
TI training can produce an endless amount of scenarios, even without access to a training facility. A little creativity in the firehouse can go a long way to ensuring a fully prepared fire department. Please share your TI training experiences with me, and I’ll put them in future columns. Train on!