Thermal Imaging Training: Non-Traditional Uses

Nov. 1, 2004
Thermal imagers (TIs) are excellent tools for firefighting. Since they enable firefighters to see through smoke, TIs have become required tools on a number of fire companies. Aggressive companies use TIs in every phase of a fire, from size-up to overhaul. But for most fire companies, the majority of responses are to non-fire incidents. So how do firefighters stay skilled with their TIs?

Simple: use the TI on non-fire incidents as well. This month’s column concentrates on creative uses for TIs, with the goal of getting you to think “outside the box” about thermal imager usage.


All members must start with an understanding of basic TI operations. A thermal imager sees infrared radiation, which is the energy that humans perceive as heat. The TI takes the varying heat levels of all the objects in a scene and creates a black-and-white picture for the user to interpret (a few TIs may add colorization, but they all can create black-and-white images). The keys to image interpretation are:

  • Remember that the temperatures indicated by the shades of gray are relative. “White hot” in an office environment may be a different temperature than “white hot” in a room and contents fire.

  • Thermal imagers do not “see through” most objects. In general, they see surfaces. TIs are not like x-rays; they do not see through solid objects.

  • TIs do not require light to function; they only require temperature differences to create an image. The larger the temperature differences are, the clearer the picture will be.

  • Dense fog, heavy precipitation or condensation on the TI lens may all negatively affect the performance of a TI.
Photo 1 shows what a firefighter might see at a report of fingers amputated by machinery.
Photos courtesy of Bullard Photo 2 shows how a thermal imager would display the “missing fingers.”

Practice Makes Perfect

This month, the Practice section is dedicated to what other fire departments and emergency agencies have done that demonstrates the flexibility of the TI as a tool.

  • A police department in Louisiana used the fire department’s TI at night to find a suspect hiding in a small river. When the suspect came up for air, the TI detected his head above water. Police officers surrounded the area and arrested the suspect.

  • A fire department in Ohio used its TI to find a mentally impaired patient who walked away from his care facility at night. The patient was not appropriately dressed for the cold, rainy weather, and he could have died from exposure if he was not found quickly.

  • A law enforcement agency in California used a thermal imager to track chemicals being dumped into a harbor from a houseboat containing a methamphetamine laboratory. The trail of chemicals identified exactly which boat was hiding the meth lab.

  • A Kentucky fire department used its TI to identify residual heat in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck involved in a single-vehicle accident. This led the fire department to search for, and find, a dazed passenger who had wandered from the accident and fallen into a ravine.

  • An Indiana fire department used its thermal imager to find fingers amputated by a lawn mower. The ambulance transported the patient immediately; the engine company searched just minutes and recovered all three fingers with the aid of the TI.

  • An Illinois fire department engaged in overhaul used a TI to identify that manufacturing equipment and steam lines were still active, despite assurances from the facility maintenance staff that they were not. By identifying active equipment, the firefighters avoided working in the area and exposing themselves to potential risks until a senior safety manager finally performed a formal “lock-out/tag-out” of the equipment.

Table Talk

Over coffee and bagels, have a brainstorming session on how a TI could have helped at difficult incidents. Ask each member to think back to an incident that was difficult or time consuming, then give a description of how a thermal imager could have helped shorten the time on scene or make the incident response more successful. For example, if you responded to a finger amputation at a manufacturing facility, how might the TI have assisted?

Photo 1 shows metal shavings around a lathe. Imagine you are the first-responding company. The shavings pose a risk to the firefighter who has to search in the metal for the missing fingers. Photo 2, though, shows what a TI might show at the incident (this incident is simulated for the image). The two white spots indicate the locations of the amputated “fingers.”

Final Report

While firefighters often think of a thermal imager as a “firefighting tool,” it clearly has potential applications at a number of emergency incidents. Any time your eyes are not giving you all of the information you want, or giving the information as rapidly as needed, the TI may assist to make your efforts more successful and less time consuming. The only way to experience these successes is to practice frequently with the TI and to try using it at almost every incident. It may not always help, but if it does, you will be glad you tried.

Visit the Technology section of for a more in-depth review of several non-traditional uses for thermal imagers.

Jonathan Bastian is the thermal imaging training manager at Bullard. Heleads 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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