Finding Hidden Fires

May 8, 2006
By properly using their thermal imagers, firefighters can locate hidden fires faster, saving themselves tremendous amounts of time and energy.

Firehouse Magazine's May 2006 Thermal Imaging Training column addresses the use of a TI in locating hidden fires. It espouses the advantages of prompt and proper TI use in these situations, as the technology can save firefighters a large amount of time and effort, save the property owner a great deal of heartache, and save significant money for the property insurance company. Proper use of the TI is addressed in the article; this online article will identify a few more success stories and the "lessons learned" from them. These stories were originally published in the Bullard Get the Picture newsletter. To sign up to receive this publication by e-mail, visit us online.

Sub-Basement Fire Found in Bank Building

Jersey City, New Jersey - Jersey City firefighters were ready with their thermal imagers when they responded to a March 5, 2005, incident in a waterfront commercial bank. At about 2 p.m., a smoke alarm activated. Firefighters responded to find light smoke inside the building. They moved down the stairs, into the basement, with a hoseline and a thermal imager.

Public Information Officer Capt. Andrew Johnson explained what firefighters found. "They started on the street level, and as they descended, the thermal imager showed them that the concrete was hot one floor below the street level," he said. "As they navigated further down into the building, it was like a maze. When they reached the furnace room in the sub-basement, the door showed as red hot."

When firefighters reached the source three levels below the ground floor, they opened the door and hit the fire with a hose stream, gaining control quickly.

"If this fire had gone undetected, it really would have been a major crisis." Capt. Johnson said. "But the smoke detectors picked it up, and the thermal imaging camera led us to it. Without it, countless time would have been lost just searching the building looking for the fire."

Lessons Learned: We all know the dangers and challenges of commercial building fires; the fires stay hidden longer, build up to higher temperatures and all the while, we are forced to navigate a maze. JCFD shows how a TI can help make short work of these "nightmare" fires. By following the conducted and convected heat patterns to their source, the firefighters were able to identify the room of origin. The Super Red Hot feature activated, showing them the very seat of the fire. They were able to fight the fire more safely because they actively sought out the fire, instead of waiting for the fire to find them. Smart, safe, aggressive use of the TI with the hose team saved a fortune?literally!

Firefighters Head off Major Chemical Fire

Glenville, New York - Firefighters in the Thomas Corners Fire Department in Glenville, New York, identified a hidden fire at Silar Laboratories on Nov. 5, 2003, preventing what was could easily have been a devastating and dangerous chemical fire.

Arriving firefighters found a light haze condition in one of the production lab buildings. Lt. Fred Frese and his crew started their search for the fire in the basement of the building, using a thermal imager to scan the walls and ceilings of each room. After moving through the whole building and finding nothing by visual inspection or with the thermal imager, firefighters were ready to give up.

"It was a weird type of thing. There was a very light haze, but no smoke in the building," Lt. Frese said. "We knew that there were no other sources of the smoke odor since the facility was shut down at that time of evening. It didn't feel right to leave. Then someone mentioned that a plumber had been working earlier in the day on the outside of the building. I scanned the wall in that area, moving higher this time with the thermal imager. It showed up immediately that we had a hot spot. I took off my glove to confirm that's where it was, and the wall was very warm."

Firefighters opened the wall and found that the brick wall inside was warm, but they didn't find the fire until they opened the wall in the adjacent room. Chief Tim Graves explained what they found.

"There were no outward signs of fire, but inside that wall the fire had been smoldering for four to five hours," Chief Graves said. "The two-by-fours had full depth charring at that point? The thermal imager saved that company millions of dollars in R&D documents, production work and damage to the structure."

Lt. Frese pointed out the critical nature of saving time at this incident. "If you respond to a major fire, there's not much you can do," he said. "If you show up early, there's a lot you can do. If we hadn't found the concealed fire with the thermal imager, I'm convinced that we would have been back at 2 a.m., responding to a major chemical fire."

Lessons Learned: Determination, a logical approach and a thermal imager made the difference. TCFD shows how thermal imagers save property, especially when firefighters are searching for hidden fire. Note, though, that Lt. Frese verified what the thermal imager was showing him. He saw a hot spot with the TI, then checked it with his hands before opening the wall. Don't forget basic investigative techniques so you do not cause unnecessary damage. Also, when scanning, be sure to stick with a three-level approach, scanning high, middle and low and covering shoulder to shoulder to ensure a full view of the area.


Jonathan Bastian is a Thermal Imaging Specialist for Bullard. He is certified as a thermal imaging instructor by the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association (LETA). He is also the author of the FD Training Network "FireNotes" book, Thermal Imaging for the Fire Service. Bastian served 12 years on the North Park, IL, Fire Department, including the last three as a captain. He has taught classes on thermal imaging, rapid intervention teams and search and rescue operations. He is currently a police officer in Lexington, Kentucky. If you have questions about thermal imaging, please send them to [email protected].

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