Thermal Imaging: Train Where You Can

By Manfred Kihn

Hands-on training is key to understanding what your thermal imager (TI) is telling you. As a TI trainer, I love taking firefighters outside of the classroom setting and demonstrating live TI scenarios that can’t be taught in a PowerPoint® presentation.
Carl Nix

When I venture outside of the classroom, I often use my surroundings to help me demonstrate to firefighters how to safely interpret the information a TI is giving them.

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Don’t misunderstand me; I believe that classroom education is extremely valuable, but firefighters experiencing real-life situations using a TI is training that could one day save a life. The best training combines both classroom and real-life learning. Much of my training takes place at the fire station, which is a good resource for hands-on TI training. Some of you may be asking, how can I turn my fire station into a training facility for TI? There are lots of options available to you that I have used successfully in my training.

Think about the rooms in your fire station such as the kitchen, recreational area, closet, bathroom (ceramic tile and mirrors for reflective surfaces), and bunkroom beds (possible victim identification), which all closely mirror what you might find in a fire. Hand your team a TI and ask them to navigate from room to room becoming more comfortable using the TI. Now, close off one of the rooms by shutting all the doors, covering the windows so they are black, and turning off the lights to make the area as dark as possible. You have just converted your fire station into a basic TI training environment. Have your team become familiar with TI imagery and basic functions by scanning around this dark setting using the TI. You can expand on this by building a house plan by setting up tables, chairs, couches, and other household items to practice navigating the room using a TI.

Now that you have created a fire training environment, let’s go one step further by enacting a live-fire situation. Suit up your firefighters in full turnout gear including self-contained breathing apparatus. This will replicate the conditions a firefighter will experience when using a TI in a real event. Using this environment, you can practice search and rescue training using a TI by conducting a search for a firefighter or a civilian. Ask one of your team members to be the victim and challenge your firefighters to maneuver through the station using the TI to locate him. Another great option is using a training mannequin packed with chemical hot packs under a blanket. You can time your search and rescue exercise with and without using a TI to demonstrate to your crew how valuable a TI can be in quickly scanning rooms and finding victims.

Thermal imaging training can happen anywhere, even in your fire station, with a little creativity. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

1 Thermal imaging training can happen anywhere, even in your fire station, with a little creativity. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Then there are those “smells and bells” responses. You can easily use the TI to practice for these responses by walking around your fire station and looking at your electrical appliances—fridge, stove, microwave oven, etc. Don’t forget the fluorescent lights for overheated ballasts, electrical panels for overheated breakers, and electrical receptacles in all the rooms at the fire station—especially if they are active with plugged-in TVs, computer equipment, etc.

I know there is no way to simulate a real fire in a fire station, but these options can help firefighters become more comfortable and familiar with using a TI. My scenarios above do not replace real smoke and dangerous heat that occur in a burning building, but they do help to equip firefighters with the confidence and proficiency they need when using a TI in dangerous environments.

If your department has access to train in an active, live fire facility, then you have the best of both worlds. Classroom education combined with a live fire facility is a huge benefit when training with a TI. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For those of you who don’t have a live fire facility, get creative using your own fire station environment to practice staying safe using a TI.

Let’s also look at ways to train using a TI for exterior applications. Your crew doesn’t need a live fire facility to practice size-up skills. Use your TI to scan the exterior of your fire station where you are looking at different construction materials showing emissivity values. Your TI will show you shades of grayscale imagery that appear in different locations at different times of the day or night because of heat from the sun or heating/cooling units. This serves as a great example of what you may or may not see when you arrive on the scene of a house fire that is showing no fire.

During our search and rescue exercise inside the fire station, we looked for victims in a dark environment. Let’s take our search and rescue exercise outside using our TI. Have a few firefighters walk into the woods or any outdoor area and have other members of the crew try to find them using the TI. Practice this exercise during different times of the day and night and in different weather conditions so your crew can see how the imagery on the TI varies based on the changing conditions of the environment.

You can also train firefighters to locate victims from vehicle accidents using the TI. Have your firefighters sit in vehicles including, cars, trucks, motorcycles, and trailers. Now, have these firefighters exit the vehicles and bring in another team of firefighters using a TI to scan the seats of the vehicles. Can your team of firefighters using the TI determine the number of people who were in these vehicles? This is a great exercise when you get that motor vehicle accident call and you have to search for victims who may have been thrown from the car or have fled the scene of the accident.

Don’t forget about hazmat calls. You can train your firefighters using a TI with the containers you have at the fire station. Propane, diesel fuel, and gas are the most common liquids found at the station. Using the TI, have your teams scan the different containers and practice determining liquid levels. You can verify your findings by opening the container or simply looking at the gauge. Remember, if you are on a scene of an emergency, you will not be able to verify your findings until the danger has subsided.

Don’t feel like you can’t train your firefighters using a TI because you lack a live fire training facility. With a little creativity, you can train with a TI anywhere, and the fire station is a perfect place to start. By using resources already available to you, you can help your firefighters become proficient TI users by creating training scenarios at the fire station.

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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