Risks When Using a Thermal Imaging Camera

By Carl Nix

Firefighting involves risks. We know that at any given time during a shift, we might get that call that puts us in a dangerous environment.

Having the right tools helps to eliminate some of the risks associated with our job. A thermal imaging camera (TIC) is the right tool, but only if it is not misused or misinterpreted during a critical moment. If it is, the results could be catastrophic. Let’s look at two common scenarios where firefighters navigating with a TIC can make the mistake of abandoning their firefighting skills by becoming too complacent and overconfident. A mistake like this can turn tragic quickly.

When training firefighters on using a TIC, I always remind them to never make the mistake of using the TIC in place of their basic firefighting skills. Firefighters are trained to stay low and crawl in dangerous environments to avoid heat exposure and unseen dangers. Years ago, these basic firefighting skills were adopted out of necessity since the equipment firefighters wore lacked thermal protection from intense heat. Modern turnout gear is much more durable and provides increased thermal protection. Now, add the TIC to that equation, and firefighters might become overconfident in hazardous situations.

Inability to see is the main reason firefighters crawl. Doing so allows them to avoid injury by navigating around furniture and debris, by going up and down stairs, and by avoiding any hazards that might exist in a structure. When equipped with a TIC, firefighters have the ability to see the environment and navigate the structure on foot. This can give firefighters a false sense of security and safety. They cannot see all hazards on a TIC, such as a hole in the floor or furniture in a temperature-stable room. Firefighters must always remember their training: stay low, and resist the desire to stand and walk. The more training firefighters receive with the TIC in dark, smoky conditions, the less likely they are to make a mistake concerning their ability to see.

A TIC will only identify a potential risk if it is directed at the risk. A firefighter’s peripheral vision can help identify potential dangers that cannot be seen with a TIC. Once again, the firefighter has a false sense of security. When training with the TIC, it’s important to let firefighters know that the camera restricts their field of view. A TIC has no peripheral vision, so the firefighter must scan the entire room to evaluate fire conditions and search for victims.

1 Firefighters must always remember their training: stay low, and resist the desire to stand and walk. (Photo courtesy of Bullard
1 Firefighters must always remember their training: stay low, and resist the desire to stand and walk. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

A simple search method is a three-pass technique, which I’ve mentioned in other articles, but it’s always helpful to share again. The first pass is across the ceiling, looking for heat accumulation, potential vent points, and structural integrity. The second pass is across the middle of the room, looking at the physical layout and its contents as well as the location of any secondary egress points. The third pass is across the floor, looking for collapsed victims and any special hazards. All three scans take less than 10 seconds.

Let’s look at another scenario. The restricted visibility caused by smoke that firefighters typically experience in structure fires can help deter them from becoming too overly aggressive. With a TIC, firefighters’ vision is no longer restricted; they now have the ability to see. This false sense of safety can raise their confidence level and tempt them to engage in higher-risk operations or to ignore critical danger signs. The most common mistake is seeing a firefighter become separated from his team while navigating a room. The firefighter’s overconfidence with the TIC led him to abandon his basic firefighting skills.

Do not depend solely on the TIC. To avoid complacency, train with and without a TIC. Conduct operations with a hoseline or rope line without a TIC and then with a TIC. Include situations where the TIC has failed. For example, turn off the TIC and then have the firefighters continue operations or call for an evacuation. Firefighters will learn that they can continue their work despite the loss of a TIC. By training regularly without a TIC, firefighters will remain proficient with their skills in the event that a TIC is not available to them at an incident. Firefighters need to remember that at any time a TIC can fail or be lost. In that situation, firefighters must be able to find their way out without it.

Training must include general safety procedures to ensure that firefighters don’t become overconfident or rely too heavily on thermal imaging technology. In my next column, I’ll look at a few more risks associated with using a TIC and how training can help avoid these limitations.

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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