Thermal Imaging: Training with the TI

Thermal Imaging Manfred Kihn

Train Like You Mean It

An engine pulls up in front of the structure and the crew pulls off a line and heads toward the front door, seeing smoke showing from a second-story window.

Carl Nix

The crew members mask up, crack open the nozzle to check for water flow, and make entrance into the structure while another engine, quint, and rescue arrive. The engine crew supplies the attack crew with water from a nearby hydrant and shortly thereafter the attack crew declares the fire knocked down and retreats out of the structure. Wait a minute; let me rewind and start from the beginning prior to all this happening.

Four separate fire departments that run regular mutual-aid calls got together for a routine monthly drill that I happened to be observing. The battalion chief explained the scenario to all crew members and finished by saying, “TRAIN LIKE YOU MEAN IT.”

Now let’s go back to the training evolution that this engine crew just completed; what I didn’t see was the use of a thermal imaging camera (TIC). If you’re going to train like you mean it, then why wouldn’t you use all your tools? If this was the real thing, you would want to be fully equipped and at your best. The more you use the TIC during training, the more proficient you will become.

So, let’s go back to that training evolution. This time, the captain gets off the engine with a TIC in hand. He quickly does a 360° situational awareness search covering the chimney and vents; across the roof level working down to the eaves, walls, doors, and windows; and down to the basement or crawlspace area as the line is being stretched. With the information gathered from this 360° search, the crew enters through the front door where the captain can now direct his firefighters where to go. This is called an imager-directed search.

A quick primary search confirms that the structure is vacant. Or is it? People will seek shelter from fire in many places. Shower stalls and bathtubs in bathrooms seem to be the most popular places to hide. The resident closes the bathroom door and puts a towel to seal the crack under the door to prevent the smoke from getting in. He then seeks refuge inside the tub enclosure or shower stall, closing the shower curtain or glass door.

Photos courtesy of Bullard.

1 Photos courtesy of Bullard.

Photos courtesy of Bullard.

Photos courtesy of Bullard.

Photos courtesy of Bullard.

In this scenario when using a TIC, the tool is limited because it cannot see through these materials. A manual search now must be performed by opening the curtain and shower door to investigate. Stand in front of a glass shower enclosure using a TIC and you will see “your” reflection and miss the person who is hiding behind the shower curtain in the shower. Photo 1 shows an example of a closed shower curtain and photo 2 shows an open shower curtain with a ceramic tile wall. The TIC is reflecting off the ceramic tile wall in the shower.

Imagine now being in a high-rise building or a hotel with different bathroom configurations. At a recent conference I attended, one room had a bathtub shower with a curtain and another had a bathtub and separate shower with a glass door, making this another imager-directed search opportunity because of the size of the rooms. A bathroom is just one example of where victims may be found.

Let’s move into the structure and determine the integrity of the structure itself. Once inside, did we scan the floor to see what is in front of us? Did we raise the TIC up to the ceiling to scan for structural integrity, fire conditions, and elevated temperatures including flow paths? Now, scan both sides using a “Z” pattern starting at the floor/wall level about halfway across the wall and wall/ceiling level. Then, turn around and look behind you. Be sure to check the doorway or doorways because there could be a closet or doorway leading to a basement or upstairs or no doorway at all, just a set of stairs. Did you know firefighters do not have depth perception using a TIC? Is the object four feet or 14 feet away from you? These questions can all be answered during training exercises using the TIC.

Let’s talk about navigating stairs, which seems strange since in smoky conditions you are crawling on your hands and knees so you shouldn’t have to worry about falling down a flight of stairs because you didn’t see them. Using a TIC shown in photo 3, the stairs are not visible in low contrast. Look at the same stairs using a TIC in photo 4 in high contrast. You can clearly see the stairs.

The scary part is that I have been told stories by firefighters who have fallen down stairways because they didn’t see them. They were looking straight ahead and not down with the TIC. Pull the TIC away from your face every once in a while, as it should not be used 100 percent of the time. It is a tool to help and guide you and to show you where dangers can lie that you cannot see with the naked eye.

So let’s go back to the title of this article, “TRAIN LIKE YOU MEAN IT.” Next time you are running some training drills, make sure you use all your tools required to do what you are doing, which includes your TIC. Yes, I know it’s just a training drill, but I shared with you some examples of how to become a more proficient firefighter while helping you stay 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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