The Challenges in Specialty Fires

Feb. 1, 2006
We'll examine in more detail the advantages of a TI in these environments, as well as two more challenges specific to these fires.

The February Firehouse magazine TI training article discussed some of the challenges users can face onboard aircraft or ship fires. Online, we'll examine in more detail the advantages of a TI in these environments, as well as two more challenges specific to these fires.


A handheld TI can assist firefighters while they are approaching an aircraft fire, as well as while they are operating inside the aircraft. During the approach phase, firefighters can use the TI to help identify safe passage through dense smoke, avoiding large volumes of fire or dangerous debris from a crash. They can identify the exact locations of doors and windows to help them decide appropriate entry points. If there are openings in the fuselage due to the crash, firefighters can also evaluate these as potential entry points.

Once inside the aircraft, firefighters can identify the location and direction of the active fire as well as any crash victims requiring rescue. In a smoke investigation, the TI can help firefighters identify areas of higher heat, leading them to track down the smoldering source of smoke.

One additional challenge of aircraft fires is that aircraft are loaded with hydrocarbon fuels. Once a fire starts aggressively burning, all of the foams, plastics and jet fuel (or aviation gas) will generate tremendous amounts of heat and black smoke. This can cause problems for the TI, especially if moisture and soot build up on the lens. Firefighters need to remember that a rapidly deteriorating TI picture can be cured by quickly wiping the lens with a gloved finger. They also need to be comfortable recognizing rapidly deteriorating conditions so that they do not overextend themselves, or misinterpret a dangerous situation as just a poor thermal image.


A TI can dramatically improve the effectiveness of firefighters onboard a vessel. Since obstacles and passageways are easily identified, a properly trained team will advance more quickly to the area of the fire when using a TI. This means that the firefighting team will find the fire, as well as any potential victims, faster. Despite dense smoke, hose streams can be visualized with the TI, allowing firefighters to extinguish the fire more rapidly. By extinguishing the fire faster, the threat to the ship and its personnel is reduced.

Firefighters will also be able to navigate dangerous spaces more safely. Cargo ties, steam lines, electrical conduits, engine room equipment and a host of other obstacles will be visible with the TI. This can help in low-light environments, not just smoke-filled ones.

Do not forget that ship spaces are small and compartments are watertight. These two features combine to cause a rapid build up of heat and dense smoke. Thick soot buildup on the TI lens can occur quickly. The naturally high humidity of a shipboard environment means that water condensation on the lens is also a likely risk. As with aircraft fires, firefighters must know how to rapidly correct a poor image caused by lens obstruction. They also must recognize potentially dangerous situations rapidly, as spaces can be small, and exit can be long and complicated.


Most of us will never have to fight a fire on an aircraft or a ship. While the potential for an aircraft incident is present for almost all firefighters, the likelihood of a shipboard incident is limited to coastal and port locations. Ensure that your training for these incidents includes specific training on your TI so that your firefighters are better prepared for the unique challenges of these types of fires.

Below are the complete Anchorage and Jacksonville "success stories" on how they used their TIs properly and effectively.

TI a Critical Tool at Ship Fire

Three Anchorage (Alaska) firefighters faced the challenge of their lives when they responded to a call in June of 2002 on the Great Land, a 790-foot roll-on/roll-off cargo ship loading in the Port of Anchorage. As they left the downtown fire station, firefighters saw a preview of the work ahead: thick black smoke pushed skyward from the port area.

Prior to the fire department's arrival, the ship's crew had isolated the fire to a 150-foot by 80-foot hold four levels below deck. The hold contained 30 cars, four semi-truck trailers and six school buses. The captain of the vessel ordered CO2 discharged into the two story-high hold in an unsuccessful attempt to smother the flames.

Senior Captain Jim Kenshalo acted as initial incident commander, leading a response of 16 firefighters. "First we checked the boundaries of the fire," he explained. "On the deck above the hold that was burning, the steel decking was warping from the heat. Using the TI, I could see a 30-foot circle of heat on the floor. We could also see heat on the TI from the engine control room bulkhead, but it was less intense."

Capt. Kenshalo spent the next hour monitoring the situation with the TI before making the decision to enter the hold. He decided to lead a three-person hose team, taking two firefighters and one of the department's TIs with him.

"The ship's crew had discharged 134 hundred-pound bottles of C02, and nothing was changing. The fire wasn't growing, but it wasn't being extinguished either, so we made a plan to enter at the lowest point of the hold," Capt. Kenshalo said. "We vented the hold for ten minutes, then entered through a hatch. It was like walking into a huge dark cave, with air blowing in behind us like a windstorm. The hold was so full of carbon that it was swirling around us? the heat was intense, and there was no visibility."

Firefighter Grant Walker took the nozzle, and led the team into the hold. Capt. Kenshalo followed Walker, operating the TI and keeping in contact with the other men on the team. Firefighter Mike Wittman was third in line, and helped advance the hoseline. Every one of the 40 vehicles in the hold was secured with eight chains, two on each corner. Firefighters crawled under truck trailers and around cars, rising up to scan the room as they went.

"The huge box beams of the ship's skeleton came at an angle from the overhead to the deck, so we couldn't see very far in front of us because the beams impeded our view," Capt. Kenshalo said. "We were running low on air, and our bells just started to ring when Grant saw the fire in the TI. Three of the six school buses at the very back of the hold were on fire? We put some water on the fire and followed our hoseline out. I sent a new crew in with the same thermal imager, and they had the fire out in a matter of minutes."

"Without the thermal imager, we would have expended a lot of energy and resources," he continued. "That hold was very dangerous? I think we could have easily gotten lost and run out of air if we hadn't used the camera. We had six lanes of vehicles to navigate, and every step we took, we were tripping over the chains. The thermal imager showed us where the cars were and gave us the confidence that we could see the next obstacle. It took all of us to save this ship? The beacon through this hell was that damned little camera."

The cause of the fire was an electrical short in one of the buses. Fire officials estimate that the thermal imager saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in ship repairs and lost revenue for Tote, the company that owns the Great Land.

Ship Fire Quickly Contained in Jacksonville, Florida

District Chief George Rhoden was one of the sector officers at a container ship fire on Jan. 21, 2003, where a thermal imager was instrumental in identifying the source of a fire in the ship's hold. When firefighters arrived, smoke was billowing out of the 40-foot by 40-foot opening in the deck. Chief Rhoden trained the thermal imager on the stacks of shipping containers in the hold and quickly identified the container that was burning.

"Without the camera, we could see nothing," Chief Rhoden recounted. "With the camera, we saw a very bright white image that told us exactly which container was burning. We were able to direct the hoselines to the correct container to cool it down on the outside."

Firefighters then made entry into the fourth level of the hold to open the container and apply water inside. The damage was confined primarily to the involved container, which was transporting Styrofoam products. Fire officials later learned that a nearby container carried used car batteries, which could have caused an explosion if the fire had spread. The incident commander declared the fire under control after 20 minutes on scene.


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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