If someone told you 20 years ago that besides the military, the fire service was going to be the only other primary agency using thermal imaging today, would you believe them?
Let’s fast forward to today: How many other emergency service agencies are, could be, or should be using thermal imaging? I’ll break down some multiagency applications for emergency medical services (EMS), law enforcement (LE), and ground search and rescue (GSAR).
We in the fire service frequently deploy thermal imagers (TIs) on scene, but there are opportunities within other agencies in your community to incorporate TI technology. The fire service, as a key TI user in the community, has the opportunity to share expertise and suggestions with multiple agencies in the area. Let’s dig into some of the opportunities for multiagency use.
Back in my younger days, I spent time in EMS, and the technology back then was not like it is today. Advancements in procedures, protocols, equipment, and personal protective equipment make for better patient care and medic safety. Just as those areas of EMS have advanced, we have an opportunity to bring thermal imaging into the EMS toolkit. With the availability, small size, and cost effectiveness of basic situational awareness TIs, there are many EMS applications that would benefit from using a TI.
You may see one thing with the naked eye, but a TI can frequently add valuable details about the patient’s condition. Some great examples of TI use in EMS can be assessment of frostbite or hypothermia, heat stroke or heat exhaustion, searching for missing digits at an industrial accident, and even locating victims ejected from motor vehicle incidents. Knowing that infrared technology is used in many hospital settings, it makes sense to see small handheld TIs used in the back of an ambulance.
There are 12 court-approved applications for the use of thermal imaging in LE: (1) search and rescue, (2) fugitive searches, (3) vehicle pursuits, (4) flight safety, (5) marine and ground surveillance, (6) perimeter surveillance, (7) officer safety, (8) structure profile scenarios, (9) disturbed surfaces, (10) environmental LE, (11) hidden compartments in vehicles, and (12) accident investigations.
You’ll note that there are two kinds of thermal imaging technology: qualitative and quantitative. LE agencies require qualitative thermal imaging. For reference, qualitative thermal imaging uses black and white image quality that shows no colorization or temperature measurement. For information that may end up in a court of law, colorization and temperature measurement are nonadmissible.
In contrast, most fire service agencies use quantitative TI technology, which includes additional information such as colorization and temperature measurement. In many instances, your local LE agency might only have access to TI technology through your local fire department. The fire service TI may feature quantitative TI technology. This is important information to know and share, as you may loan your fire service TI to your local LE agency.
For your local LE agency, using a fire department’s TI is okay in certain cases, such as a search and rescue operation or on a fugitive search. However, if LE is planning on using that TI to gather evidence, it would be important to use a qualitative TI, without features such as colorization or temperature management.
2 A vehicle was stopped by LE and, with the aid of a TI, officers discovered a hidden compartment that contained a loaded semiautomatic handgun.
3 Searching for a missing person.
Many GSAR organizations realize the value of using a TI during their search operations and have either received grants or raised funds to purchase their own TI equipment, although others may still need to rely on loaners from their local fire department. While handheld TIs are frequently used on the ground searches, they can also be used in airborne search operations if the aircraft does not have any mounted forward looking infrared (FLIR) equipment.
When handheld TIs are used on an aircraft, it is important for searchers to remember that a TI cannot see through windows. In addition, many other of the same principles we in the fire service know about thermal imaging technologies will apply in GSAR applications, such as the various emissivity of items you may see through a TI during a search.
For instance, GSAR organizations using a TI during a search must understand that items other than humans may hold and emit heat at various temperatures. During searches, rocks or trees heated by the sun may emit heat that could resemble items or people. In fact, the images shown on a TI screen are showing temperature relative to other surrounding items in the scene. It’s important to understand how to interpret the items viewed on the TI screen, just as we interpret the visuals in the fire service during overhaul.
For GSAR applications, the best TI technology would be advanced decision-making thermal imaging equipment, as these imagers are better suited for long-range detection abilities.
In the fire service, we’ve been using thermal imaging technology for years and for many applications. As you share your knowledge with other agencies in your community, also look inward: Is your department using your TI equipment as extensively as it could be? National Fire Protection Association 1408, Standard for Training Fire Service Personnel in the Operation, Care, Use and Maintenance of Thermal Imagers, Section 7.1.7 has laid out the following Applications: Search, Fire Attack, Investigations, Overhaul, Motor Vehicle Accidents, Size-Up, Hazardous Materials Incidents, Electrical Emergencies, USAR Operations, Rapid Intervention Crew (RIC) Operations, Accountability, Rehab, Participant Safety, Ventilation, Apparatus Placement, Stream Placement, Exposure Protection, Water Rescues, Assisting Other Agencies such as Law Enforcement Agencies, Wildland, Building Construction, Training, and Other topics identified by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). For how many of these applications is your department deploying your thermal imaging equipment?
The fire service has learned much about using thermal imaging technology over the past several decades. We have the opportunity to help our other local emergency responder agencies understand, accept, and proficiently use this life-saving technology. How can you work more closely with other agencies in your community to share your thermal imaging knowledge for other applications? How can our local organizations work collaboratively across multiple agencies to save lives with thermal imaging technology?
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.