Search and Rescue

April 1, 2004
Search and rescue, especially during structure fires, is the most frequently considered thermal imager (TI) use. Success during structure fire rescues, as well as during non-fire incidents, requires regular practice and a basic understanding of how the TI displays information.
Photo courtesy of Bullard This photo demonstrates a thermal imager being used in an exterior search. Even though it is taken during daytime, the victim is shown as white because of the cold ground. Remember, the imager can help at non-fire incidents.

If the thermal imager is deployed early in an incident, it can have a tremendous impact on the search efforts. The importance of early use is matched by the need for skilled use. While any structure fire can test the training and discipline of responding firefighters, the situation will be even more hectic if fire companies encounter a mother screaming that her child is trapped inside the building.

To help ensure successful TI use during searches, consider the following:

1. Develop clear standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for thermal imager use, and train all members to the SOGs.

2. Develop a deployment plan that ensures the imager is easily reached by members and that it arrives early in an incident. If the TI arrives 15 minutes into an incident, it will probably assist with a recovery, not a rescue.

3. Ensure all members understand the difficulty of interpreting images in and around beds. The SOGs should mandate that all beds are searched and cleared by hand, regardless of the thermal image interpretation.

4. Ensure all members understand that thermal imagers generally do not see through objects. Areas behind doors, furniture and other obstacles need to be cleared from multiple angles or by hand.

5. Use the thermal imager for non-fire search efforts as well. The TI can help locate lost hikers, missing boaters, children who are lost in a forest, or an elderly adult who wanders from a care facility.

Practice Makes Perfect

Effective search techniques require regular practice. Users must gain hands-on experience to understand thermal imagers do not “see through” obstacles and that victims will probably show as gray on the display, rather than white (or hot). Also, victims do not always present in full-form; that is, they can be partially hidden by furniture or curled into a fetal position. Firefighters have to recognize heat signatures that are out of place or indicate the partial shape of a human.

During search drills, consider:

  • Using victims of different temperatures so that firefighters don’t “lock in” on the “whitest” item on the display.

  • Practicing with rescue dummies that have been warmed or cooled prior to being placed inside the search room.

  • Dressing live victims (in non-fire training) in heavy clothing to mask their heat signatures.

  • Partially hiding victims, such as placing them in closets, behind doors, partially under beds, etc. Place a victim in a bathtub, with just an arm hanging over the side. Make the drill difficult, but realistic.

  • Practicing other fireground operations that require tools, while using thermal imagers at the same time. Many firefighters will perform searches while they do other tasks, such as advancing a hoseline or forcing doors open.

Table Talk

The presidential primaries or an upcoming promotional exam might be more interesting fodder for the kitchen table, but a company officer can quiz his or her firefighters to describe how a victim will appear on a thermal imager:

Photo courtesy of Bullard Figure 1. This image shows a bed. It is clear that there is a heat signature under the bed. While it is not obviously a human, it is a warm heat source that is out of place. Additionally, firefighters expect to find people, especially children, under beds. Most firefighters will identify that the area under the bed requires further search. There are two children in this image. Do you see the second child?
Photo courtesy of Bullard Figure 2. This image shows the search of a hot hallway and stairway. There is a form in the corner that vaguely resembles a human. Adult fire victims are frequently found near exits, or in the pathways to exits. However, the form is not white, which is how humans appear on the imager in normal environments. Does this deserve further investigation?

Applying the skills and practice in a real-life search or rescue is the final exam. Figure 1 shows an image captured during a bedroom search in a single-family dwelling, while Figure 2 is an image from a hallway search in a shipboard fire. Decide if we have anything worth investigating, and if so, where.

Final Report

In Figure 1, the child under the bed is obvious. The second child is on the bed, under the covers. Blankets and comforters keep people warm by holding in heat; a child may not heat up the surface of the comforter enough to be visible to your TI. This is the clearest example of why all beds must be searched on top and underneath by hand, regardless of what the imager may show.

Figure 2 demonstrates how it is form and location that help determine a human, not necessarily color on the display. Because the victim is in a fire environment, the walls of the ship are warmer than a person. The victim, being cooler, displays as gray on the imager.

Answers for Table Talk:

1. This could be difficult if the ground is 88 degrees Fahrenheit, as this is near the skin temperature of a human. Shape is the critical part, as the shades on the thermal imager will be similar.

2. Exposed body parts, such as the face, should be easy to identify. However, as the snow builds up on the person’s coat, the person will blend in thermally with the background. Small hot spots may be key in the search, but do not neglect odd shapes or forms that blend into the cold snow.

3. Initially, searching for a warm body in a cold environment should be clear-cut. As the cold rain soaks through the clothing, it will get harder to find the person. Hypothermia will further complicate the matter. This could be a race against time. Early in the search, hot spots are key; as time advances, shape and form will become more important.

4. With no precipitation to affect the clothing of the person, this situation should be relatively easy and have the longest span for success. This should be a white object against a gray background.

5. Since thermal imagers do not see through water, only those body parts above water (such as the head and arms) will be visible. Heavy, wet clothing may block some of the person’s heat. Generally, a person floating in the water will show as a hot spot in a span of gray or black.

Jonathan Bastian is the thermal imaging training manager at Bullard. He leads the training team, whose primary effort is to educate the fire service on the safe and proper use of thermal imagers. Bastian is certified as a thermal imaging instructor by the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA), the international public safety organization specializing in thermal imager certification and training. He is also a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Service Training. Educated at Brown University and licensed as a high school teacher in Illinois, Bastian served 12 years on the North Park, IL, Fire Department, including the last three as a captain. As health and safety officer, he led the development and implementation of the department’s rapid intervention team SOG. Bastian is a certified Fire Instructor I and Firefighter III, and he spent 12 years as an EMT-I/D. He has taught classes on thermal imaging, rapid intervention teams, and search and rescue operations. Bastian is happy to answer any questions about thermal imaging; contact him at [email protected].

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