Thermal Imaging Training: Safety

Sept. 1, 2004
Thermal imagers (TIs) improve firefighter safety. It’s a proven fact. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of documented cases in which firefighters using thermal imagers avoided potentially fatal situations. By taking TIs with them during fire attacks, firefighters across the country have avoided holes in floors, identified missing stairways, and recognized roof systems ready to collapse.
Photos Courtesy of Bullard Practice carrying your thermal imager in a way that moves the display out of your view. Notice how the firefighter keeps his hand in contact with the wall to maintain his traditional method of orientation.

Despite all the safety advantages, there are also safety disadvantages to consider with a thermal imager. Firefighters need to be aware of the safety concerns and regularly practice avoiding them.


It is human nature to associate darkness with danger; conversely, we associate safety with the ability to see. A thermal imager gives you the ability to see in dense smoke, but it does not make the situation safe. Remember these key points:

2. The TI display is an “eye magnet.” It is natural to want to see, so it is common for people to stare at the display and ignore their other senses. Be sure to maintain your situational awareness.

3. The ability to see breeds complacency. It is common for users to navigate from “point A” to “point B,” rather than maintain a traditional right- or left-hand search pattern. You still need to stay on a wall, or have a rope line to follow out.

4. You can lose the use of your TI. You might drop it, lose it, or break it. The battery could die. If Mr. Murphy has his way, this will happen when you are at the greatest risk. You cannot rely on the TI alone to enter or, more importantly, exit a structure.

Practice Makes Perfect

For your TI to make your job safer, you have to use it safely. Practice the following techniques to ensure you and your company do not get complacent.

  • Standardize your search pattern with the TI. Every scan should move from shoulder to shoulder, viewing the ceiling, walls and floor (high-middle-low). Since your TI does not have peripheral vision, this full shoulder-to-shoulder scan is the only way to ensure you view the entire scene. As you move through a structure, remember to scan behind you to ensure your primary exit is still secure.

  • Generally, firefighters who stare at the TI as they navigate become disoriented when it is taken from them. After you scan, choose a waypoint and put your thermal imager away. Get the TI away from your face so that you are not tempted to stare at the display, then crawl to the next waypoint. You should use the TI as you would use a compass and map: as a reference tool to stay oriented and move in the correct direction. At the waypoint, re-scan the scene with your TI and then choose another waypoint. This type of drill reinforces situational awareness skills.

  • Navigate with the TI, but follow your standard search protocols. You can use the TI to move faster and more safely, but do not forget to have a back-up plan. You should be able to continue a search or exit a structure without a TI. This means sticking with a right- or left-hand search pattern, or using a tagline.

Table Talk

Photos Courtesy of Bullard Thermal imagers do not have peripheral vision. Note how we cannot see the whole ceiling, any of the floor, or anything to the immediate right and left. Firefighters need to make full scans to ensure safety.

While you cannot accomplish too much at the firehouse kitchen table, you can do several drills around the firehouse to practice safety with your TI. The bunkroom can be an ideal place to practice because you can do so in darkness. Practice all three of the key safety techniques. Scan shoulder to shoulder, high-middle-low, choose a waypoint and put your TI away, then move along the wall. Complete a full search pattern through the area. To emphasize the importance of traditional search techniques, at some point in the drill, take the TI away from the team. Ask them to continue the search or to evacuate.

This is an excellent way to drive home the use of proper techniques, as well as determine the best system for carrying your TI. Some sort of strap is the most common method, as it gives you the ability to remove the TI from your sight and free both hands to help advance a hoseline. However, you should try different carrying systems to find the one that best suits your operations. Normally, the manufacturer has several carrying options; however, you could find that a backboard strap or other system is more convenient.

Final Report

Your TI is an awesome tool. It gives you the ability to see dangerous conditions, as well as changing conditions, inside a smoke-filled structure. But that ability to “see” can foster over-confidence, as well as over-reliance on the tool. Remember that the TI does not change the environment. Practice solid search techniques regularly so that your TI adds to your safety level, rather than detracting from it.

For more tips on safety, as well as a deeper discussion on how to move through a structure, visit the Technology section of


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].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!