It’s true, the pandemic has made for some challenging times for everyone. Essential frontline workers go about their daily tasks to the brink of near exhaustion.
While fire departments may not have suffered the extreme upheaval that healthcare workers have, much has changed at the firehouse during this time as well. I’m thinking particularly about your training program. Sometimes in challenging situations, training can be the first area to be neglected. With the social distancing rules in place, some fire departments have continued with their drills, some have been hesitant about bringing extra crews in together in person, and others have halted all training until further notice.
If your training schedule has been disrupted, use this time as a refresher. I’ve pulled together the most easily forgotten thermal imaging tips. Let’s dive in!
- Keeping your vision. Wipe both the display and front germanium lens on your thermal imager (TI) often during fire attack/suppression. Dirt, carbon, and fogging inhibit the ability for heat to pass through the lens to the detector, lowering the level of heat detail on the monitor. This can limit your information and may impact proper image interpretation.
- Know what’s normal. We all understand that a TI tells us what is hot vs. not. But, if we don’t benchmark what “normal” looks like, how do we know what is not comparatively? For instance, a structure in the heat of summer will look completely different in the cold of winter. Both appear as “normal” heat images based on the emissivity of the building construction materials, temperature, and sun exposure. With regular practice, it will be easier to understand whether the scene you’re seeing appears normal or not.
- Look behind you. When entering an unknown structure using a TI, it’s important to also turn and look back even though you are using a TI. As you move through a structure, passing through multiple doors, the landscape looks different at your back. Occasionally, take a look at your potential exit course so you can paint the image in your mind.
- Beware of reflections. Modern day kitchens can potentially be a room full of reflective surfaces. Stainless appliances, granite counters, high-gloss wood cabinets, and marble/ceramic floors can all give false impressions because the thermal energy is reflected off these surfaces. In a kitchen with thermally reflective surfaces, your TI may appear to show a large body fire in one area; however, on further inspection, you may find that the heat source shown on your TI is merely the heat reflected on a stainless steel surface from a body of fire in another nearby location.
- Share what you see. Paint verbal images for the rest of your crew as you use thermal imaging. Remember, you may have the benefit of a strong visual through your TI, but often your crew following behind will be blind in the current conditions. Giving good verbal descriptions of room layouts and contents will improve the ability of the entire crew to move more effectively through unknown structures.
- Don’t forget the floor. Sounding the floor is still required, even when you’re using thermal imaging. Did you know that, to a TI, liquids on a floor will often appear the same as a hole in the floor? The TI will identify a difference in the floor area. Increase your safety by combining your visual cues with basic firefighting tactics to better identify floor stability.
- Play hide-and-seek in the woods. This is a great training activity while social distancing. Are you prepared and understand the limits as well as the advantages of grid/distance detection that a TI offers? Understand that having a cooler background while looking for a victim who is generating more heat will be seen for a greater distance. The opposite occurs when you have a warmer background—a victim not generating as much heat will only be detected at a shorter distance. Learn what you can see and not see and understand the relationship of distance and body heat.
- Hazard checks. At motor vehicle collisions (MVCs) involving rollover vehicles, be sure to use a TI to check for any potential hazards such as down power lines and fuel spills.
- Victim check. Using a TI, look at all seats front and back including child-carrying seats for heat signatures during MVC rollovers or down motorcycles to ensure you don’t overlook ejected victims.
- Keep batteries in top condition. Battery maintenance on your TI is vital. You can maintain your batteries by draining and recharging on a schedule. Double-check with your crew; if you aren’t actively implementing a battery maintenance schedule, here’s my favorite tip: Every time “C” shift works on Friday, have them drain the battery, replace with a spare, and recharge the other.
- Grab the TI on every call. There may be some calls where a TI doesn’t seem like a great fit. However, it can provide a benefit in many circumstances. For example, when working in confined spaces (i.e., finding victims in tunnels and culvert systems), use your TI to detect humans at 300 feet or more, whereas you’ll only have about 50 feet of visibility with a flashlight.
1 Identify reflective materials in your thermal images. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)
TIs are only as effective as the end-user’s interpretation or misinterpretation of the image. To an inexperienced eye, the best technology can be useless or possibly fatal. Training during these unprecedented times is equally important, as the message is clear: practice, practice, practice.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.