Not Just for Fighting Structural Fires, Part 2

By Carl Nix

Last month, I discussed the advantages of using a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to fight aircraft fires and took you through the events of a controlled burn aboard an aircraft fire simulator. In this column, I’ll focus on the benefits of using a TIC to fight shipboard fires. The majority of firefighters are trained to battle structural fires, but a number of fire departments fight fires aboard ships. Using a TIC can be an effective tool for firefighters who face the challenges of a shipboard fire.

Shipboard Fires

Think of the obstacles facing a firefighter onboard a ship when a fire breaks out. The narrow passages, bulkhead doors, numerous deck levels, steep stairwells, heavy fuel loads, and maze-like features of a vessel can be disorienting and dangerous for firefighters. Although the threats of a ship fire may be different from those of an aircraft fire, many of the TIC challenges are similar.

First, large vessels are constructed primarily of steel. Steel, like aluminum, will not show a firefighter using a TIC its true temperature. For instance, a bulkhead door hiding a fire may not display as white on the TIC during the initial growth of the fire. However, once the steel heats up enough, the TIC will help firefighters identify the location and extent of a fire as well as the potential for spread.

Second, the risk of firefighter disorientation on a vessel is high. The structure is maze-like, and firefighters must be extremely cautious about remaining oriented with and without the TIC. Firefighters cannot rely solely on the TIC to lead them into and out of the environment. While this is true in a structure as well, the very nature of the vessel’s decks and passages makes orientation a life-critical issue on a ship.

1 A firefighter can use a thermal imaging camera to see the intense heat in this confined space. (Photos courtesy of Bullard
1 A firefighter can use a thermal imaging camera to see the intense heat in this confined space. (Photos courtesy of Bullard.)

Although there are many obstacles that firefighters face on a vessel, the use of a TIC can improve the effectiveness of bringing a fire under control while keeping firefighters safe. Since obstacles and passageways are easily identified on a vessel, a properly trained team will advance more quickly to the area of the fire when using a TIC. This means that the firefighting team can locate the fire, as well as any potential victims, faster. Despite dense smoke, hose streams can be visualized with the TIC, allowing firefighters to extinguish the fire more rapidly and reducing the threat to the ship and its personnel. Firefighters will also be able to navigate dangerous spaces more safely. Cargo ties, steam lines, electrical conduits, engine room equipment, and a host of other obstacles will be visible with the TIC. This can help in low-light environments, not just smoke-filled ones.

The logistical challenges of fighting a large ship fire can be overwhelming. Plan to have multiple TICs available to support accountability and ensure as many firefighters as possible can see and navigate. If you are engaged in an interior attack on a fire below the main deck, the danger and challenges are multiplied. Station one firefighter, equipped with a TIC, along the hoseline paths to help guide the crews as they make their way toward the seat of the fire. This is extremely important at any point along the path where a change in direction occurs.

It’s also important to remember that ship spaces are small and compartments are watertight. These two features combine to cause a rapid buildup of heat and dense smoke, causing thick soot to build up on the TIC lens quickly. The naturally high humidity of a shipboard environment means that water condensation on the lens is also a risk.

2 A firefighter can use a thermal imaging camera to see the intense heat in this confined space. (Photos courtesy of Bullard
2 A firefighter can use a thermal imaging camera to see the intense heat in this confined space. (Photos courtesy of Bullard.)

Victims in the Water

A TIC can also assist with spotting a person in the water. For search and rescue in the water, a TIC can, in the right circumstances, be an extraordinarily capable tool. TICs are very good at detecting heat signatures from body parts exposed above the surface of the water. Be aware that a TIC cannot see through water and cannot see a person under the water, but you can use it to spot a person in calm water up to a half mile away. In large bodies of water, there are often few active heat sources in the area, which allows a TIC to distinguish a partially exposed human body in cool water.

A TIC can be an effective tool in fighting fires in challenging environments. Although the majority of firefighters are trained to battle structural fires, there are a number of fire departments that battle shipboard and aircraft fires. Do not overlook using a TIC in these challenging environments.

Carl Nix is a 30-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.

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