Using a Thermal Imaging Camera During Fire Attack

By Carl Nix

Fire suppression is the job most often associated with firefighters. Suppression, control, and safety restoration at the scene are our goals.

When lives and property are at risk, we are the first to mount an attack. A thermal imaging camera (TIC) is an extremely useful tool during this attack. It can show thermal layers, a safe path for advancement, alternative exits, and the location of the heaviest fire. Using a TIC can help you suppress a fire quickly, efficiently, and safely.

Fire departments must have a plan in place to deploy the TIC during fire attack. If at all possible, a TIC should be on the first unit to arrive on the scene. If your TIC is arriving on the third or fourth unit, it may be too late to help in the fire attack. It’s also critical that the TIC be assigned to a firefighter to ensure it comes off the apparatus. Think about a typical fire scene. The first unit arrives on the scene with firefighters who are seeing thick, black smoke pouring from the structure and flames shooting out from the windows and doors. Where’s the TIC in this scenario?

I highly recommend having a plan in place for grabbing the TIC off the truck that is compatible with your staffing. For instance, assigning the TIC to a specific person or seat will ensure that it comes off the truck immediately. If you are on the first-arriving piece of apparatus, use the TIC to view the structure as you approach. Be sure to roll down the window, as your TIC cannot see through glass. You can quickly and accurately assess areas of excessive heat buildup and the effects of natural ventilation. Once on the scene, you can aid fire suppression using three quick scans with the TIC: One scan just inside the structure determines direction of heat travel; a second scan on arrival in the area of origin helps to determine fuel source and room configuration; and a third scan after initial suppression can help determine spread and ventilation efforts.

1 Have the hose team practice advancing the line and simulating area scans with the thermal imaging camera. (Photo courtesy of Bullard
1 Have the hose team practice advancing the line and simulating area scans with the thermal imaging camera. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

Now that we have a plan for taking the TIC off the apparatus during fire attack, we face another challenge: coordinating TIC usage with hoseline advancement. Setting some time aside to practice a few quick drills can help perfect operations and also help firefighters become more comfortable with using the TIC. Park your apparatus outside the firehouse so your company can practice stretching dry attack lines into the apparatus bay. Assign firefighters to specific seats to ensure that each firefighter gets practice leading out the attack line or backing up the line while carrying the TIC. Have the hose team practice advancing the line and simulating area scans with the TIC.

As the team advances, the firefighter using the TIC cannot stare at the TIC display the entire time. He should use the TIC to orient the team, then secure the TIC while he helps advance the line. For three- and four-person companies, this assistance on the line is especially important. From a tactical standpoint, it is preferable for any member of the team, except the nozzleman, to carry the TIC. Whether it is another member or the company officer who uses the TIC, it is better for a backup person to be responsible for the tool.

After practicing hoseline advancement with the TIC, think about some of the unique fire risks in your response areas and how they might affect your hose advancement. For example, are there structures that might require you to bring additional tools? Do you have to reassign tools to ensure that the special tools, as well as the TIC, make it into the structure? Can the TIC person carry the extra tools and still advance the line? How is he carrying the extra tools to ensure that he has easy access to the TIC?

For your TIC to help in fire attack, first it must be present and then it must be used. The TIC must come off the apparatus early and often. If the hose team uses a TIC while advancing the line, members can find their way to the seat of the fire more quickly and, more importantly, more safely. The TIC helps team members see objects that they would not otherwise see and allows them to navigate faster and with greater ease. In short, having your TIC as you arrive on scene and as you exit the apparatus could make a huge operational difference and will undoubtedly help increase the safety of the crew.

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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