Thermal Imaging: How to Prevent the “White Hat Syndrome”

As the years have gone by in the fire service, we have seen vast improvements made to the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by firefighters, thanks to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.
Carl Nix

If you asked a 30-year veteran firefighter what gear he wore when first entering the fire service, the answer most likely would be 3⁄4 high rubber boots, a patch coat, a fire helmet, and mitts. The scene would look a lot like photo 1. It’s no surprise that there was a lack of thermal protection, which prevented firefighters from going too deep into a structure or standing or walking around.

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Remember, thermal imaging technology didn’t enter the fire service until the late 1990s, and even then only fire departments that had the funds to obtain a thermal imager (TI) were able to acquire this new technology. The first adopters were those fire departments that were more progressive and quick to try new technology. Soon after, other departments followed, and thermal imaging became a critical tool in firefighting.

Today’s modern firefighters can consider themselves fortunate as the PPE manufacturers have stepped up their game, but have they gone too far? In my training, I discuss the “White Hat Syndrome,” which requires the use of a TI to conduct a safety test and understand what it means and how it can protect firefighters.

Have you ever emerged from a structural fire wondering how hot you are? Your gear has done its job by protecting you from the excessive heat of the fire, but your body is feeling like you’re roasting inside. Ask a crew member or officer who has a TI to scan your fellow crew members for a temperature threshold. Or, do you have an accountability or a safety officer who is outside with a TI to give you a quick once-over scan starting at your helmet and shoulder area? What color is the fire helmet to the naked eye? Now, look at that fire helmet through the lens of the TI. What do you see? Is it glowing white? If yes, then your firefighter has taken in way more heat than he should have; this is what I call the “White Hat Syndrome.” Using a TI to monitor the thermal conditions above your head is a good technique that you should be practicing at all times.

Photos courtesy of Bullard
Photos courtesy of Bullard

1 Photos courtesy of Bullard.

I have asked this question many times of firefighters: “Do you know what the thermal protective performance (TPP) of your PPE is?” It’s sad to say that not many firefighters can answer this question. Let’s look at the tallest part of a firefighter—whether standing or crawling, it’s the head with the fire helmet on. All helmets, regardless of the manufacturer, are rated for 500°F (260°C) for five minutes to meet NFPA standards. Now we have hoods, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face pieces, bunker gear, gloves, etc., which all have their applicable temperature ratings that must meet NFPA requirements.

So, what does this mean for the younger generation of firefighters, unlike 30 years ago, when they don’t feel any heat? They believe they must be OK, so they keep going, getting deeper into the structure and getting hotter but still believing they are OK because they don’t feel anything, right?

Wrong! All is good until something on your PPE fails, like the polycarbonate on your SCBA face piece when the temperature is 446°F (230°C). By constantly monitoring with the TI and checking team members, you should be able to avoid that “White Hat Syndrome” or any possible equipment failure.

Photo 2 shows a firefighter who has obviously taken in a lot of heat, indicated by the white colorization that is visible on his arms, upper chest area, and helmet. The whiter or the more glowing a firefighter appears in a TI image is valuable information indicating the firefighter has been exposed to high temperatures. This also tells you that the firefighter is feeling pretty toasty inside his gear.

So, how else can the TI be of value in this situation? How about for rehabilitation purposes, giving the accountability or safety officer more enhanced knowledge of the firefighter or the crew’s condition on exiting a structure fire? Technology continues to improve all the time, and we just need to keep up with it and use it to our benefit to help keep firefighters 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

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