Use Your Thermal Imaging Camera Wisely

By Carl Nix

Working in the fire service for 30 years has allowed me the privilege of watching it grow and modernize. With growth comes greater responsibility. Today’s fire service is equipped to deal with man-made and natural disasters because of better training, equipment, and tools.

Thermal imaging is one of the modern tools of the fire service that still needs to be fully embraced by firefighters. You don’t need a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to fight a fire, but using a TIC could increase safety, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Firefighter safety is the first and most critical benefit of using a TIC. Becoming lost or disoriented inside a burning structure can be a harrowing experience. The TIC can help. The primary cause of firefighter disorientation is the lack of visibility. Without smoke, navigating a building is a pretty easy task. Now, add thick, black smoke, and the task is difficult. This is where the TIC can be the most helpful. A TIC gives you the ability to see the orientation of the structure, including specific rooms and furnishings, allowing for safer maneuvering. Secondary means of egress are easy to locate from across the room. Issues of structural integrity such as sagging ceilings or obstacles are easy to identify. With all of these benefits, it makes sense to have a TIC with you at all times.

Let’s look at how you can use a TIC when entering a smoke-filled structure: Scan the room with your TIC once you enter the structure using a three-pass technique. The first pass is across the ceiling looking for heat accumulation, potential vent points, and structural integrity. The second pass is across the middle of the room looking at the physical layout and its contents as well as the location of any secondary egress points. The third pass is across the floor looking for collapsed victims and any special hazards. All three scans take less than 10 seconds but are important to maintaining proper orientation with your TIC. The actual navigation of the room should not be done with your TIC. That’s correct. I would not use the TIC for the actual act of navigation, since you can move quicker without it once you know the layout of the room.

By using your basic firefighting skills and confirming, by touch, the mental map that you developed during the second pass with the TIC, you will be able to move faster through the structure. If something were to happen to the TIC such as if you drop it or lose it, if the battery dies, or if the TIC malfunctions, you can get back because you know how you got there. You know where the secondary egresses are because you physically touched them as you navigated. As you move around the room, you should pause and rescan the room using the three-pass approach so that you can observe changing fire conditions.

1 During this search, the TIC showed a hot spot in the ceiling, which turned out to be fire extension into the attic. Had the crew not used a TIC, this fire may not have been spotted early. (Photo courtesy of Bullard
1 During this search, the TIC showed a hot spot in the ceiling, which turned out to be fire extension into the attic. Had the crew not used a TIC, this fire may not have been spotted early. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Let’s review a scenario: A department answered a call for a structure fire and, on arrival, the first-due company observed a two-story apartment building with the front door open and smoke showing through the door. Residents of the building were out of the structure standing on the sidewalk. The engine company, with a TIC in hand, quickly scanned the structure using the three-pass technique and located the fire in the kitchen of the downstairs apartment. Suppression was accomplished in minimal time. After the majority of the smoke had been ventilated, crews reentered to check for extension and conduct overhaul using a TIC. Here’s where unknown dangers can hide and a TIC could prove very useful.

During this search, the TIC showed a hot spot in the ceiling, which turned out to be fire extension into the attic. Had the crew not used a TIC, this fire may not have been spotted early. There were definitely two specific areas of the roof that held greater heat concentrations than the rest. One area was directly above the unit with the kitchen fire, but the second area was approximately 40 feet away. The crew saved a lot of time by using a TIC for overhaul and seeing the smoldering fire.

Fighting fires without a TIC is certainly possible, but when you combine the skills of basic firefighting with the intuitive skills of a TIC, you have a safer scenario. Firefighter disorientation is far too common an occurrence to ignore, and it can have serious consequences. Your TIC can help you find your way out of a fire by providing visibility, but to maintain proper orientation, you must combine your basic firefighting skills with your TIC skills. One should not replace the other.

Carl Nix is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a retired battalion chief of the Grapevine (TX) Fire Department. He serves as an adjunct instructor for North Central Texas College and a thermal imaging instructor for Bullard. Nix has a bachelor of science degree in fire administration and is a guest instructor for Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s (TEEX) annual fire training in Texas.

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