When You Have Downtime

By Carl Nix

The next time you have some downtime at the station, think about engaging your newest recruits in a few simple training exercises using a thermal imaging camera (TIC).

Although TICs are becoming more and more entrenched in the fire service, the technology of this tool needs to be well understood so firefighters can make the best decisions when time is of the essence. Hands-on training conducted by an experienced firefighter at the firehouse is extremely valuable for all firefighters but especially for our newest recruits. This is not to say that I don’t recommend having firefighters attend formal classroom instructions for TIC training, because I do. I’m recommending in addition to classroom training that your firefighters engage in 15 to 30 minutes of TIC exercises two or three times a month to help provide them with a greater understanding of this tool. Let’s look at a few training drills that you can conduct at the station in a short period of time.

Temperature Sensing and Reflectivity

Understanding that your TIC can only measure surface temperature, not air temperature, is critical when using your TIC in structure fires. Here’s a quick exercise to help your firefighters understand this concept. Take your firefighters to the kitchen. Turn the burner on high on your gas stove and position your TIC so the display is looking through the flames. The flames are not being measured by your TIC and therefore have very little effect on the temperature being displayed. Now, place a cast iron frying pan on the burner; your TIC will provide a temperature measurement because it has a surface to measure.

Firefighters need to be aware of how reflectivity can impact temperature readings on a TIC as well. If you have an electric stove, try covering one burner with aluminum foil with the shiny side up. Turn on that burner and another burner that is uncovered. Point your TIC first at the covered burner and then at the uncovered burner. The TIC will give you different temperature readings because of the reflectivity of the aluminum foil. Reflectance (or reflectivity) is defined as the amount of heat bouncing off the surface of an object. The more reflective the surface, the less accurate the measurement on your TIC.

While still in the kitchen, grab an aluminum sauce pan and fill it with water. Place it on your stove burner on high. Now, grab a cast iron skillet and place it on a burner next to your aluminum sauce pan. Turn both burners on and wait for the water to boil and the sauce pan to heat up. We know that water boils at 212°F. Point your TIC at the side of your sauce pan and the temperature reading will be below 212°F because of the reflectance of the outside of the pan. The TIC is reading the reflected temperature of the room, not the temperature of the pan.

Now use your TIC to look at the reflection of the skillet on the side of the pan and you should see the temperature (extreme white) of the skillet in the pan. If you point your TIC to look at the pan where you see the reflection of the skillet, your TIC will read the temperature of the skillet in the reflection from the pan. Identifying reflection can take some getting used to, but with consistent training your firefighters will quickly master this skill. Your firefighters will most likely experience reflection in a fire so they need to know how their TIC will interpret this scenario. Other examples of reflectivity include glass, metals, wet surfaces like a tile floor, concrete, and even brick, which all can trick firefighters into misinterpreting the temperature of an object.

1 Firefighters need to be technically astute when using a TIC so they can make the best decisions when time is not their friend. (Photo courtesy of Bullard
1 Firefighters need to be technically astute when using a TIC so they can make the best decisions when time is not their friend. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Identifying Heat Patterns

Most firefighters can identify heat patterns when looking at a large structural fire, but what about the smaller, more subtle heat signatures? Firefighters need to be trained to find the less than obvious heat signatures.

Place a space heater on the other side of a closed door at your fire station. Give the door several minutes to warm up. Have your firefighters conduct a search and see if they recognize the heat pattern prior to opening the door. Whether they notice it or not, you can use this opportunity to talk about the benefit of recognizing smaller heat sources. If you have both solid core and hollow core doors in your station, you can set up several space heaters to show the difference between these door construction types.

The Latent Thermal Effect

Think about using a TIC to play hide and seek with your kids. You could use your TIC to scan the body heat that’s being remitted from where the kids have been hiding. The TIC can detect the heat source from a child’s body that has been leaning on the back of a couch or a handprint on the side of a bed. Have your firefighters sit or lean on the furniture in the firehouse. Ask them to use the TIC to scan where they were to see the amount of body heat that has been absorbed and is now being detected on the TIC.

This exercise is extremely valuable when performing search and rescue. This latent thermal imaging effect can help firefighters see signs of trapped victims before they locate them. Firefighters may see latent thermal images on furniture, beds, or walls that can indicate victims are present. This drill can also train you for responding to car accidents to determine how many victims were in the car, especially if the car was involved in a rollover where ejections are common.

Have you ever used hand warmers when watching your kids play sports on a cold winter night? You know the ones I’m talking about – you put them inside your gloves to stay warm on a frigid night when you’re at a game. Grab one of those hand warmers and activate it. Now use the TIC to show your firefighters what it looks like on the display. Next, grab a thick towel and cover the hand warmer. Now show the firefighters the TIC display. This exercise shows firefighters that when searching for victims on beds, victims can be hard to detect because the warmer the blanket is for people, the better insulator it is. The better insulator the blanket is, the harder it is for a TIC to see. This is a perfect example of why you should never abandon basic firefighting skills when using a TIC. Always search all beds using a gloved hand regardless of what the TIC might be telling you.

The next time you have downtime, gather your firefighters together for a quick training session with the TIC. Just 15 or 30 minutes of TIC training could possibly save a life on your next fire call.

CARL NIX is a 32-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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