Equipment, Rapid Intervention Survival

Firefighters’ Days Are Far from Typical

Issue 8 and Volume 22.

By Carl Nix

Firefighters never have a typical day. Think about some of the calls you have responded to over the past two months and I’ll bet most of them didn’t involve fighting a structural fire.

Today’s firefighters respond to motor vehicle accidents, medical emergencies, hazmats, false alarms, nontraditional fires, and nonemergency calls. Based on the number of nonfire vs. fire calls, is it that important to carry a thermal imaging camera (TIC) with you? The answer is yes. Let’s look at the benefits of having a TIC with you when responding to nonfire and nontraditional calls.

You may recall hearing this news story from last year: A fisherman’s capsized boat was found along the Hudson River, but there was no sign of the fisherman. The firefighting crew that responded to the emergency call had a TIC when they began their search during the evening hours. The firefighters were using the TIC to scan the water and the shoreline when the screen indicated a heat source. The heat source was indeed the missing fisherman. He swam to shore but was very weak and suffering from hypothermia.

Thankfully, the crew had a TIC and used it correctly to perform this search and rescue. Without it, the crew may have abandoned the search and called in the divers. Using the TIC shaved valuable time off the crew’s search and most likely saved this boater’s life. The crew had the proper TIC training to know that it can’t see into water but can detect a heat source above the water or on land.

1 This thermal image is a recreation of a man lost in a wooded area. The camera is picking up the heat source from the man’s body. (Photos courtesy of Bullard
1 This thermal image is a recreation of a man lost in a wooded area. The camera is picking up the heat source from the man’s body. (Photos courtesy of Bullard.)

Here’s an example of where a TIC can be a life-saving tool for firefighters who are responding to a nontraditional fire. The use of medical and nonmedical marijuana is growing in the United States, and firefighters must be aware of how to fight fire in a grow operation (“grow op”). There usually is no readily observable sign telling them this is a grow op structure and a potentially dangerous situation. Using a TIC in size-up and understanding basic clues can help minimize the risks of fighting a fire of this nature.

One of the clues firefighters can look for when they suspect a grow op fire is excessive heat emanating from the basement or crawl space areas, ventilation ductwork (dryer), chimney, and roof vents. The massive heat is created by the sodium vapor bulbs used in grow op structures. When investigating or performing fire attack with the TIC, firefighters must be aware of these possible risks not normally encountered in structure fires. Also, be aware of toxic and explosive gases, booby traps, weakened structures, electrocution, entrapment and entanglement, and blocked egress and access. The number one cause of fires in grow ops is electrical. Be sure to have your TIC with you at such fires.

A TIC was used on the West Coast a few years ago to track chemical spills on water. The police search and rescue crew used a TIC to track chemicals that were being dumped into a harbor from a houseboat containing a methamphetamine laboratory. The TIC tracked the chemicals lying on top of the water and followed the trail to the boat that was hiding the meth lab.

2 Using a TIC helps to speed up the search when looking for a missing person. The TIC is a huge benefit for the victim and the firefighters
2 Using a TIC helps to speed up the search when looking for a missing person. The TIC is a huge benefit for the victim and the firefighters.

Police departments often use TICs when searching for missing victims. It is not unusual for the local police department to ask the fire department to support rescue efforts with a TIC. In one case, an autistic child had run away from home and was missing for nearly four hours. As darkness fell, the police officers asked their local firefighters to assist in the search using their TIC. During the search, one of the firefighters spotted something out of the corner of his eye and used a flashlight to look down an alley but saw nothing. This same firefighter asked for the TIC and looked down the same alley only to see a heat source pop up on his screen. As he watched the image on the TIC display, he saw it pop up and then watched it pop off his screen. As he approached the object, he found the missing child hiding behind trash cans. The TIC was picking up the image of the child’s head popping up from the trash cans. It was determined that the child was hiding because he was afraid. Had the firefighter not used his TIC, it’s hard to imagine how long it would have taken the rescue crews to find the missing child.

Use a TIC at motor vehicle accidents to search for victims who have been thrown out of the car or off a motorcycle and are lying injured or unconscious. Use the TIC to scan the surrounding areas to detect the heat source of the victims. Or use it to scan the tire tracks to where the victims may have been thrown from the vehicle.

The list of nonfire and nontraditional applications for your TIC keeps growing. Take the TIC with you on every call. It might just save a life.

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.