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It’s universally understood that the functions assigned to ladder companies include jobs such as laddering the building, forcible entry, search and rescue of known and unknown occupants, ventilation and overhaul. Other functions such as placement of elevated master streams, extrication and the like can be enhanced with thermal imager use.
Thermal imagers, in the hands of a properly trained truck company, can be a valuable asset on the fireground. Let’s look at some specific functions and the use of thermal imagers to enhance those functions.
• Ground and aerial ladder placement. While perhaps not a frequently considered application for thermal imaging, positioning and placement of ground and aerial ladders can be aided by their use.
Let’s say you arrive on the scene of a fire involving a three-story multiple dwelling in the early hours of the morning. Between the darkness and smoke conditions, it is difficult to see the upper windows and roof line, hampering correct placement of your ladders. Use your thermal imager to scan the building to locate potential problems such as electrical service wires, window-mounted air conditioners and other hazards you need to avoid. The imager could also detect persons who may be at windows, but obscured by smoke from a fire below them.
• Victim search. A commonly used search technique for a typical bedroom involves what is referred to as a “Z” pattern search. Here’s how it works: Upon entering the search area, make a quick scan across the top of the ceiling from one side of the room to the other. This allows you to make a rapid assessment of conditions above the ceiling and the possible presence of any object that may be coming down on you. Continue back across the middle section of the room, noting the presence and location of alternate ingress and egress points, including windows, doors and the like.
Now, finish the scan by coming across the lower section of the room. Most fire victims tend to be in the lower third of the room, on furniture such as beds and couches or on the floor. In addition to looking for possible occupants, check furniture for heat signatures that would suggest someone was recently sitting or lying there. This will be a clue as to how many potential occupants need to be accounted for.
While scanning across the lower area, check the floor for any signs of holes or areas potentially burned through. Keep in mind this thermal cursory scan does not replace the need for constant sounding of the floor as the search progresses. If your department uses the vent, entry and search (VES) protocol, this firefighter is a prime candidate to be equipped with a thermal imager to assist in performing the primary search.
• Ventilation. Your thermal imager can also be a helpful tool in a variety of ventilation tasks. You can scan the roof area to determine the warmest area for starting your cuts. It will be tougher to see these warm spots during the day, or just after sunset, as the solar loading on the roof could also create warm spots easily mistaken for higher temperatures under the roofing material. In addition, the thermal imager can scan the overall structure to monitor the effectiveness of vent operations.
• Overhaul. Once the fire is knocked down, the thermal imager can now be put to work to simplify the overhaul process. Use the imager to isolate the warmest areas in the room and start your work in those locations. Some modern thermal imagers have various electronic functions to help isolate the warmest areas in a room to get the process moving in an efficient manner. Make sure you know how to use these features if your imagers are equipped as such. A very thorough scan of interior and exterior surfaces before the last company takes up may help prevent those pesky and embarrassing “rekindle” dispatches.
• Elevated master streams. How many times have you watched the 1,000- to 1,500-gallon-per-minute stream from a ladder pipe or elevated platform shoot over the top of the building, providing no value to the suppression efforts? Heavy smoke conditions, or simply darkness, can impede the ability for the crew to effectively place the stream where it can do some good. By using a thermal imager, the stream can be better directed to its intended target by the operator. If the operator is running the ladder pipe off the tip of an aerial, be sure the imager is properly secured to the crew member or aerial in a manner that would not impede movement of the firefighter or the aerial device.
• Extrication. Numerous fire-rescue departments across the country rely on ladder companies to handle basic vehicle extrication responsibilities. Use your thermal imager to scan the seats of a vehicle to quickly determine the number of occupants who were in the vehicle prior to your arrival. This is particularly useful in cases of a rollover situation, where ejection is a higher likelihood.
• Deployment. As ladder companies are frequently split up on the fireground in order to simultaneously complete their tasks, there is easy justification to have more than one thermal imager available to them on the scene. By having multiple imagers on the apparatus, or available from another source such as one of the command vehicles, crews can operate with a higher efficiency than if they only had one imager available.
Regardless of what type of apparatus is doing the primary tasks of the truck company, the proper use of a thermal imager in the hands of a trained crew will allow firefighters to perform their jobs safer, faster and more efficiently.