Training for Safety – Part 3

Sept. 1, 2006

This training column is the third and final installment of a series on the "Five Deadly Sins" of thermal imaging. The first two columns concentrated on the most common, and potentially most dangerous, sins: "Standing and Walking in Unsafe Environments" and "Abandoning Traditional Safe-Search Techniques." This month's column focuses on the last three sins, which as a whole are less problematic than the first two, but still pose risks to the firefighter who is unaware of the potential pitfalls.

The Deadly Sins

The last three sins firefighters must consider are:

Advancing at an Inappropriate Speed
Misinterpreting Images
Misapplying Technology

Though these are considered "lesser sins" in terms of the dangers they pose, they can still lead firefighters into bad situations. The most common of these three sins is Advancing at an Inappropriate Speed, either too slow or too fast to work effectively and safely inside a structure. When a firefighter becomes engrossed in interpreting every shape and object on the thermal imager (TI) display, his advancement can be slowed dramatically. When a firefighter moves too quickly, on the other hand, he could possibly overlook hazards or become separated from the rest of his company.

While less common, moving too slowly poses hazards to the firefighter. He spends longer in the hostile environment, using more of his limited air source to perform less work. Additionally, while he is moving more slowly through the structure, the fire continues to burn, increasing the risks of partial collapse or structural failure during the course of his slower search. Of course, any victims in the building can ill-afford delays in being removed from the environment.

Moving too quickly in a building leads a firefighter deeper into the structure. As a result, he may unintentionally stretch his air supply beyond a safe reserve, placing himself at risk of running out of air inside. Also, the firefighter with the TI has a tendency to move faster than his partners since he can see, while often his partners cannot. Regardless of how many Tis are deployed at an incident, the basic safety rule of staying with your partner does not change.

Misinterpreting images, the next deadly sin, can cause firefighters to make poor decisions. For example, a firefighter could interpret a white area on a wall as indicating a hidden fire, when it may only be indicating the location of a heating duct. Or, a firefighter may not recognize that he is viewing a reflected image and therefore he may search or advance in the wrong direction.

Finally, misapplying the technology will generally generate more frustration than danger. Firefighters must know the limits of thermal imaging technology as well as the scope of its capabilities. For example, firefighters cannot expect a TI to assist them in recovering a drowning victim, as Tis will not see through water. While this does not necessarily place the firefighter at greater risk, a lack of understanding of limitations and capabilities can lower the user's confidence in the thermal imager as a valuable tool.

Training for Safety

Firefighter knowledge and regular practice are the most effective ways to avoid the "Deadly Sins." To avoid moving too slowly, firefighters need to remain focused on their task. If they are performing a primary search, for example, firefighters are essentially looking for the fire, any victims, a safe path of advancement and potential emergency exits. Identifying whether a tabletop is covered with books or boxes is immaterial; similarly, a firefighter inside a burning structure does not benefit from knowing the types of light fixtures on the ceiling.

Firefighters can take two steps to avoid advancing too quickly. First, the person with the TI can briefly describe what he sees on the display, as well as state his strategy for advancement. This helps the rest of the team visualize the environment and potential obstacles, as well as understand the plan as they move forward. Second, members must regularly check with the rest of the team to verify all members are in close proximity.

Proper image interpretation is developed over time through regular usage of the TI. Only with frequent usage will firefighters become comfortable with understanding how the TI develops images and, more importantly, what those images portray. Firefighters should be using the TI on a weekly, if not daily basis, developing their image interpretation skills at training burns, as well as by looking around the firehouse. Even building inspections can turn into opportunities to practice using the TI and understanding its imagery.

Ensuring proper application of the tool is a matter of solid training and frequent reminders. Firefighters should receive a formal training program on how to use their Tis, how they function, and what limitations they have. Some fire departments have developed their own TI training programs, as have some state-run fire training facilities. Fire departments can also turn to private training companies, or even the supplier of their Tis, to get formalized training.


This three-part series identified five common challenges to safe thermal imager usage. Firefighters must first recognize the challenges, then incorporate training programs to prevent firefighters from succumbing to these risks. Thermal imager use must be incorporated into all aspects of fire training and should not be considered as a stand-alone topic. If firefighters practice pulling and advancing hose while carrying a TI, they will become better at using the TI to make their advancement easier. This philosophy must extend to all facets of emergency operations.

With proper and safe training, firefighters will be better equipped to use their tools in an appropriate manner. Doing so will reap benefits for them as well as the citizens they serve. For more information on the "Five Deadly Sins," visit the Technology Section of

This column is accepting your true stories and your questions about thermal imaging. Send them to [email protected].

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, KY. If you have questions about thermal imaging, please send them to [email protected].

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