Where Can’t I Use a Thermal Imaging Camera

Thermal Imaging | Manfred Kihn

I love asking firefighters if they use their thermal imaging cameras (TICs) on every call and seeing their reactions!

Carl Nix

I recently had an opportunity to meet with a deputy chief, a chief training officer, and a training officer and asked them if their firefighters use TICs on every call. All three looked at each other and said, “NO!” I asked them if their TICs were used for size-up, and again I received a “NO!” I asked, how about when making initial entry for suppression and victim search and rescue? You guessed it! “NO!” I finally just asked, when did they use their TICs? The answer? “For overhaul!”

To summarize, this extremely valuable technology tool is just sitting in the apparatus while the firefighters are doing all the hard work! I’m thinking that this technology is being underutilized. What are you thinking?

Here’s a recent example. I was at a fire station when crews were called out. They arrived on scene within a few minutes, and after about five minutes the officer called on the radio for someone to bring the TIC off the engine. With technology in thermal imaging evolving so rapidly, TICs have dropped from approximately 6.5 pounds to 1.5 pounds and have come down in price considerably. There should be no excuse for someone on your crew not to be carrying the TIC. Just like your radios, flashlights, or halligan bar, your TIC is an extremely useful and critical tool—if you remember to carry it with you!

A TIC can be used for the following: search and rescue, electrical emergencies, wildland firefighting, safety officer, explosions, scene assessment, overhaul, motor vehicle incidents, fire attack, aircraft emergencies, size-up, law enforcement, hazmat, ventilation, water rescue, line placement, confined space, rehabilitation, overheated machinery, training, accountability, EMS, incident command, building construction, fire/arson investigations, RIT, fire prevention, and aerial operations.

If you are in doubt about using a TIC, my best advice is to just start using it. The more you use it, the more proficient you will become. For example, use your TIC during fire prevention inspections for electrical panels, overheated breakers, buried electrical cords, and so on. Also, think about using your TIC for EMS calls, including patient assessment for frostbite, hypothermia, water rescue, and mass casualty triage such as a bus incident or determining how many occupants were in a vehicle rollover.

Training instructors monitoring the safety of their students and even recording the event for a later playback are a perfect example of where your TIC can be used. Think about using your TIC for overheated machinery incidents, which may include motors, bearings, and conveyors. How many times have you received a call about a missing person or your local police department has reached out to you for help when searching for a young child who is lost or an Alzheimer’s patient who has wandered away from his home? A TIC is your greatest tool for search and rescue calls. Here’s another scenario that most firefighters don’t think about: Take your TIC up into the basket of the aerial to see what you are doing through the thick, smoky conditions while also assessing for structural integrity and exposure protection—valuable information for Command to know.

Photo courtesy of Bullard.

1 Photos courtesy of Bullard.


So, you’re probably asking yourself, what are some scenarios for not using your TIC, or what are the limitations of using a TIC? Hopefully, I have convinced you that using your TIC on every call is critical to working efficiently and, most importantly, staying safe. Let’s look at the limitations of using a TIC.

A TIC uses infrared energy, meaning it can only see to the nearest surface, so it cannot see through walls, buildings, or people. No, it does not have X-ray vision. Confusion can arise when dealing with TIC reflections from shiny surfaces such as gloss paints, wallpapered walls, linoleum, hardwood or painted concrete floors, and mirrors. You also cannot see through glass (unless it is lead-based), so unless the glass changes color from the heat during size-up, don’t expect to see into the room. As a side note, some TIC manufacturers have what is called video overlay, which allows firefighters to see through glass. Infrared also cannot see into water, so unless the victim is on the surface during water rescue, TICs do not work for underwater body recovery or fishing. Another limitation is daytime victim search and rescue or other operations on a hot, sunny day. The TIC will pick up every object that is warm/hot.

Infrared has many limitations, and one is that it cannot see through anything. It sees to the nearest surface. So, for materials that are thick enough like a shower curtain or a factory plastic dividing curtain, the TIC cannot penetrate through the material and you can receive a reflection just like glass.

It’s important to remember that victims seek shelter everywhere. Photos 1 and 2 are the same thermal images. A trapped person is seen huddling behind the curtain, which the TIC is not seeing. The firefighter used the TIC to get into the room but now must conduct a manual search because the TIC cannot see through the materials.

Get creative during your training drills by including your TIC. Remember that they are not just for overhaul.

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 manfred_kihn@bullard.com.


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