Thermal Imaging in RIT


Manfred Kihn

The development, planning, training, and standby use of rapid intervention teams (RITs) have increased dramatically in recent years. Proper RIT planning and training include determining the tools that are available to the RIT. One of these valued tools is the thermal imager (TI). Let’s look at key considerations when using a TI during RIT deployment.

Determine who will carry the TI and use it. While the most likely scenario is having the RIT officer or RIT chief use the TI, it is important to train within your RIT system to ensure that this approach is feasible and is the best option for your department. The best way to ensure the best placement is to practice a number of drills with the TI in each position. Practicing in your system under your staffing conditions ensures that you find the best usage system for your department.

For example, if you choose the lead firefighter to carry and use the TI for the RIT, your primary advantage is that he will be able to guide the team. Using a TI ensures the team will move more quickly through the structure and probably locate the down firefighter earlier. Placing the TI with the person in this position has disadvantages as well. Firefighters being led by a TI can become complacent and lose focus on maintaining proper orientation. Also, there is a risk that once the lead firefighter finds the down firefighter, he will holster the TI. While packaging the down firefighter for removal, he might forget to have the officer use the TI to monitor conditions and the packaging process. During extraction, he also may forget to use it to help guide the team.

A TI is a valuable tool for many applications and should not be overlooked when RIT operations are needed on the fire scene.

 A TI is a valuable tool for many applications and should not be overlooked when RIT operations are needed on the fire scene. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Depending on how your RIT is formed and deployed, there may be other options as well. Remember that choosing who will carry the TI is only part of the task. Your RIT must still practice with the TI to ensure the team is comfortable operating with and without the tool. Equally important is practicing image interpretation so the RIT team can locate the down firefighter more quickly.

Three most visual identifiers. As with civilian search efforts, firefighters must look for key shapes to help them identify humans. For the RIT seeking a missing firefighter, three of the most likely visual identifiers are the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinder, the face piece, and the helmet. If the firefighter in need is completely covered by debris, the TI will probably not be as effective in locating him. The RIT will have to use traditional search techniques, possibly moving debris prior to searching an area. The TI will, however, still be helpful to the RIT in guiding its members more safely through the structure and helping them identify debris piles that require additional investigation.

Protective clothing absorbs heat. A firefighter’s protective clothing can absorb significantly more heat than civilian clothing. The relative temperature of the firefighter in need could be much higher than temperatures normally encountered with civilian victims. A firefighter could appear as white or light gray on the TI display.

A TI only returns a semblance of sight to the RIT. There are limitations to a TI, so a firefighter in need still must rely on the basics for guiding the RIT to his position: give a “Mayday” on the radio with his location and situation, activate his PASS device, make noise with a tool, and activate any hand lights available.

Checking if the firefighter is breathing. To see if the firefighter is still breathing, use your TI to check the SCBA tank and regulator for color. If your TI shows black or dark, there is still air flowing; if opposite in color, this is not a good indicator.

A TI can be an important tool for RIT operations. Proficiency demands regular use, and regular practice can help firefighters avoid overreliance. As with any other TI drill, to ensure solid skills, it is important that firefighters know how to perform their required tasks with and without the aid of a TI. It is also important to conduct drills where the TI is “lost” at some point, verifying that firefighters can continue with their assignment even if they lose the TI.

During RIT drills, firefighters should train to look for key visual indicators of a firefighter who is down. By dressing a rescue dummy in firefighting gear, or by having a firefighter wear his gear during the drill, TI users can practice looking for unique shapes. As with other searches, remember that shape is usually more important than the shade of gray seen on the TI display. The SCBA tank, face piece, and helmet are unique shapes that clearly indicate a firefighter. The bulky clothing, gloves, or boots of a firefighter also should be easy to identify with practice.

During drills, begin by ensuring the RIT will be able to see one of the obvious indicators of a firefighter down (SCBA cylinder, face piece, and helmet). As firefighters master this skill, start covering parts of the down firefighter to ensure that they can detect a down crew member if only his arms or boots are visible to the TI. These drills will emphasize the importance of shape in identifying a firefighter. As firefighters gain comfort in identifying forms and shapes, instructors can introduce drills that involve the loss of the TI, forcing firefighters to rely on traditional search efforts.

Once standard operating guidelines (SOGs) have successfully incorporated the TI into RIT operations, spend 15 minutes at the kitchen table reviewing the applicable SOGs. Ensure that each member is familiar with the specific assignments, including who carries and uses the TI. If there is a separate TI SOG, review it as well to verify that members know operational procedures, battery change procedures, and emergency procedures in the event of equipment failure.

When determining your department’s need for TIs, as well as placement of TIs, do not forget the TI for the RIT. A properly deployed TI can help the RIT move through the structure faster and safer and find the firefighter in need more rapidly. Regular practice with and without the TI during RIT drills will ensure that your firefighters are able to operate under different conditions, even after a possible equipment failure. By cultivating a high skill level with the TI, your RIT team should succeed more quickly if deployed at a real RIT incident.

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

No posts to display