Thermal Imagers: Not Just for the Crews

Assessing a water rescue using a TI is an advantage for the IC. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

By Manfred Kihn

Coordinating a scene full of firefighters, apparatus, and other resources–often from multiple agencies–while performing a multitude of tasks in an environment where decisions can make the difference between life and death is a lot to ask of one person. The incident commander (IC) is responsible for the safety of all involved as well as the successful outcome of an often rapidly evolving and unpredictable incident. The weight on an IC’s shoulders is tremendous and is enough to make most people consider doing something else. The job can certainly be overwhelming, but providing the most accurate, timely, and reliable information possible is the backbone of most good fireground decisions, and a thermal imager (TI) can help with that.

A TI can supply quite a bit of information that would otherwise be unavailable. Better yet, it can provide this information faster than just about any other means. Many departments have come to realize this benefit and are deploying imagers in the chief’s, battalion chief’s, or deputy chief’s vehicles in an effort to make pertinent information available to the IC. Let’s explore some of the ways a TI can help an IC.

Structure Fire

At a structure fire is the most obvious way a TI can help an IC. A TI is the perfect tool for size-up and assessment to provide the IC with critical scene information that helps establish incident objectives. With the naked eye, you may see smoke coming from the eaves and the gable end of a single-story residential structure; however, when evaluated with the TI, you can see much more. With the TI, you may notice heat patterns on the outside of the structure. When looking at the roof area in addition to the smoke, you may notice a strong heat signature where a portion of the roof is warmer than other areas, indicating that the structure would benefit from aggressive vertical ventilation. However, heat signatures take some time to develop, and we know about gusset plates and heat exposure. In this case, it may be wise to wait for the aerial crew for ventilation purposes.

The primary consideration in evaluating structures from the outside is the impact of the sun. If you are evaluating structures during the daylight hours, you must account for the effect of sunlight. If the roof area of the home is fully exposed to sunlight, yet you see a distinct pattern where parts of the roof are warmer than others, this is an indication (but not proof) of a fire in the attic area. If the pattern of sunlight closely matches the thermal pattern you see on the TI, then the roof may simply be heated by the sun–an indication that the fire may not yet have vented to the attic.

You can also evaluate ventilation efforts with a TI. Whether vertical or horizontal, positive or negative pressure, with a TI you can discern how much heat is coming out of the vent point as opposed to simply how much smoke is coming out. Abrupt changes to the amount of heat exiting a vent point also signal abrupt changes to the interior conditions.

Water Rescues

Using a TI for a water rescue provides the IC with a consistent, isothermal background against which the TI can evaluate. Water often looks artificially cold because it is a reflective surface for a TI and warm objects stand out. The TI is a valuable tool when locating, accessing, or rescuing victims at night or during inclement weather when the water is moving or still. Locating victims is easier, and monitoring the scene is more effective for the IC when using a TI instead of relying on a shore-based spotlight. Positioned downstream from a swift water rescue, the IC can monitor operations as well as provide an important safety mechanism should victims or rescuers be released into the moving water.

Brush Fires

I am referring to agricultural or suburban-type brush fires–those that occur in a department that owns one or two brush trucks, some water vests, and a couple of those rubber mats tied to a broom handle. Have you ever seen a soybean field fire before harvest? I have, and I can tell you that it generates heavy smoke. Getting brush trucks to the larger fire areas and personnel to the smaller fire areas is essential. These kinds of situations make it difficult for an IC to maintain an accurate operational picture. In a department where you have only two types of resources (brush trucks and people) that are in limited supply, appropriate deployment is critical to a successful operation. Personnel accountability is also enhanced when the IC can see what is going on.

Any Fire Scene

Increased visibility is always needed on any fire scene, and an IC can benefit by using a TI at night and during inclement weather. We know that a TI does not use light to generate an image, so it is a valuable tool at night. Picture quality is consistent with a TI and allows an IC to generate a view of an entire scene that may not be possible otherwise, particularly when the scene is large or spread out. Using a flashlight is not ideal in heavy rain or fog, and that’s where the visibility of a TI can really aid the IC. How far a TI can see in these types of conditions is affected by density of precipitation and ambient temperatures among others, but you can see farther in these conditions with a TI than with any other technology available to you. 

The TI can add valuable information to the IC’s decision-making process. The tool also provides the IC with a cohesive operating picture of the scene. When deploying a TI, you may want to consider an accessory option such as a Digital Video Record for due diligence of evidence preservation, training purposes, and so on. Information is what keeps an IC comfortable in command and reduces stress levels. It is also what keeps ICs at an appropriate distance away from scene operations to evaluate the scene and ensure everyone stays safe.

Manfred Kihn is a 19-year veteran of the fire service, having served as an ambulance officer, emergency services specialist, firefighter, captain, and fire chief. He has been a member of Bullard’s Emergency Responder team since 2005 and is the company’s fire training specialist for thermal imaging technology. He is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor and is a recipient of the Ontario Medal for Firefighters Bravery. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you can e-mail him at [email protected].