Engine Company, Equipment, PPE, Rescue Company

Benefits of Thermal Imaging for the Incident Commander

Issue 7 and Volume 22.

By Carl Nix

Training firefighters to be safe and smart while using a thermal imaging camera (TIC) when responding to an incident is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of providing TIC training.

Firefighters are the ones in the trenches when a call comes in and lives are at risk, but what about the incident commander (IC), who is responsible for getting these firefighters home safely? Does the IC need a TIC?

When a company officer or incident commander arrives on scene, one of the first challenges is to identify the seat of the fire. 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. This is the job of the IC: being responsible for the safety of all involved as well as the successful outcome of an often rapidly evolving and unpredictable incident. The demands placed on an IC can be overwhelming; that’s where a TIC can help the IC make decisions to ensure the safety of all involved.

One of the most significant challenges an IC faces is the ability to quickly gather vital information on the conditions unfolding at the scene. Obstacles including rapidly changing conditions, unknown building construction features, blinding smoke, and poor nighttime visibility make this job incredibly difficult. Many hazards are also simply invisible to the naked eye. Experienced firefighters will agree that if initial information is gathered quickly and accurately, incidents tend to go well. When an incident is running on inaccurate or incomplete information, problems can occur and result in the loss of a structure or a life.

Fortunately, many of these obstacles are now being addressed with the use of thermal imaging technology that enables firefighters to rapidly and efficiently collect information that would otherwise be unavailable. With this information, ICs can better determine the resources required and where to deploy them. Most importantly, this new information has made operations safer and has meant the difference between life and death for responders and civilians.

More and more fire departments are realizing this benefit and are equipping chief officers with TICs in their vehicles to ensure ICs have the necessary information to make the best decisions on the scene. Using a TIC can help pinpoint a concentration of heat within an area of a building, saving a great deal of time, especially in large commercial or multistory structures. An IC with this knowledge can better direct firefighters regarding their point of entry and plan of attack and can apply the appropriate resources to endure a safe resolution.

1 A thermal imaging camera is a safety tool that helps the incident commander make informed decisions while in the heat of the fire. (Photo courtesy of Bullard
1 A thermal imaging camera is a safety tool that helps the incident commander make informed decisions while in the heat of the fire. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Take a structure fire, for example. In planning for a response at a structure fire, the IC should consider the total number of TICs available on scene, including the number of units that will be there, where they are coming from, and how quickly they can arrive. There can never be too many TICs at an incident, so every effort should be made to have and use as many units as possible. The IC can use a TIC for size-up and assessment to gain valuable information that will help him establish the objectives to contain the fire.

The TIC provides many benefits for an IC at the scene including the detection of heat patterns on the outside of the structure, especially on the roof. For example, when accessing the roof, the IC may notice a strong heat signature showing a section of the roof being much warmer than other sections of the roof. The primary consideration in evaluating structures from the outside is the impact of the sun. When using a TIC to evaluate structures during the daylight hours, it’s important to be mindful of the sun’s effect. If the roof area of the home is fully exposed to sunlight but you see a distinct pattern where parts of the roof are warmer than others, this might be an indication of a fire in the attic area. If the pattern of sunlight closely matches the thermal pattern you see on the TIC, then the roof may simply be heated by the sun.

Fighting a structural fire at night or during inclement weather poses obstacles in visibility. An IC can use a TIC to improve visibility during these conditions. The TIC does not use light to generate an image, making it an ideal tool for seeing at night. An IC can access the entire scene using the TIC in low visibility or weather-related conditions that make it difficult to view scenes with the naked eye. Many ICs are using TICs very effectively in structural incidents every day and lives are being protected as a result.

Using a TIC on a hazmat call is another example of where an IC can make a difference by taking the guesswork out of determining the existence of a material and the extent of contamination. In many instances, a TIC can help the IC determine the level of a solid or liquid in a storage container. Always remember that the TIC does not actually see through the container, but it senses temperature differences on the surface of the container. In some cases, the temperature of the contents will not transmit to the surface. For example, the container may be insulated, full, or impacted by a strong environmental condition such as direct sunlight or freezing temperatures. In such cases, a TIC will not help to identify the level of product inside the container.

The use of thermal imaging technology provides the IC with critical information to make well-informed and necessary decisions quickly in the heat of the fire. All fire service personnel responding to an incident need a TIC, including the IC.

Carl Nix is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and a retired battalion chief of the Grapevine (TX) Fire Department. He serves as an adjunct instructor for North Central Texas College and a thermal imaging instructor for Bullard. Nix has a bachelor of science degree in fire administration and is a guest instructor for Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s (TEEX) annual fire training in Texas.