Thermal Imaging Carl Nix
Building relationships among firefighters is vital to staying safe on the job. My brothers and sisters of the fire service always have my back when a call comes in.
Our jobs are demanding and at times dangerous. We are passionate about our work—so passionate that we regard it as a calling. Our friends in law enforcement are very much like firefighters. They, too, are passionate about their work and believe it is a calling.
Over the years, I have built close relationships with the law enforcement community by combining our resources to respond to a variety of calls. Some calls were rescue situations, while others were responding to apprehending suspects. Whatever the call, we were always willing to combine our resources and work side by side to resolve the situation. Today, many of my friends in law enforcement call when they have a situation where the technology of a thermal imaging camera (TIC) would prove valuable. When I ask why their department doesn’t make the investment in purchasing a TIC, the response is, “We can borrow yours.”
Since borrowing a fire department’s TIC is becoming a more common occurrence, I thought it would be helpful to discuss some of the instances where a TIC can be used in law enforcement scenarios. We know that TICs can detect extremely small differences in temperature. This feature is very helpful for police officers because it allows them to easily distinguish people from their immediate surroundings. Just like the TIC provides another set of eyes for firefighters, it provides officers with an additional eye to help bring a situation under control. For instance, the TIC is a powerful tool for locating victims, uncovering evidence, identifying threats, scene containment, search and rescue, hazmat response, vehicle accidents, SWAT operations, riots, officer rescue, and maritime operations.
Let’s look at an example of an incident where both police and firefighters would be responding—a motor vehicle accident that happens at night because of darkness, slick road conditions, and poor visibility. On the scene are police vehicles and fire trucks with their warning lights flashing. A scene like this makes it extremely difficult to monitor personnel or equipment. With a TIC, we can effectively control and monitor this scene because it can look beyond the blinding walls of light, darkness, fog, or smoke. The TIC is not affected by these things, making it more effective for emergency responders to locate victims who may have been thrown from cars or pursue someone on foot who may be fleeing the accident scene. The TIC can help responders monitor the scene and filter out some of the chaos that could impede rescue efforts.
It would be remiss of me not to compare the differences between night vision and thermal imaging technology since I’m sure many of you reading this column are already asking that question. Night vison magnifies existing light and enhances imagery. Thermal imaging detects heat signatures or infrared energy that is not affected by light unless a lighting source directly affects surface temperature. Just as thermal imaging is ingrained within the fire service, night vision is the mainstay in the law enforcement community.
There are TICs designed specifically for law enforcement, but they could not survive in fire applications. The concepts of durability, insulating thermal protection, progressive warning colorization schemes, fixed focus lenses, and white hot all work well in the fire arena. A TIC designed for law enforcement could suffer premature and catastrophic failure in such adverse operating environments.
Other uses of thermal imaging technology by law enforcement include finding items in hidden compartments, locating evidence, fugitive searches, and search and rescue. TICs have been used to locate contraband in hidden containers, truck tires, and car door panels. It is common for contraband to be hidden during transport or shipping. Using a TIC lets you spot thermal irregularities and interactions that don’t appear normal. Split fuel tanks, hollow body panels that are stuffed full, loaded tires, and even automotive body fillers and putties are easily identifiable with a TIC, which displays them as thermal irregularities that help provide investigators with important clues to finding the hidden items.
The ability to locate at a distance a fleeing or hiding suspect makes the TIC an effective tool for fugitive searches. The TIC lets you locate a suspect regardless of camouflage or dark clothing and can cover large areas at a single glance, which is much more effective than a flashlight that has a limited cone of visibility within the beam of light.
Search and rescue is where your TIC can help bring a child or an elderly person to safety. How many times has your police department asked for your help when searching for a missing child or a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s? In both circumstances, a TIC can help cover large areas in a short time. Large fields, parks, roadways, and wooded areas are all easy to search with a TIC. Creeks and streams also offer a unique use for thermal imaging. One unique characteristic of water is that it usually looks very cool to a TIC. Victims, on the other hand, appear very warm. This makes for a bright white object on an otherwise dark gray/black field of view.
The bond between law enforcement and the fire service is a strong and common one. We have both pledged to serve and protect. That’s why when called on, we are proud to share our TIC tool with our brothers and sisters in law enforcement.
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.