Train with Your Thermal Imaging Camera at the Firehouse

By Carl Nix

Training with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) at the firehouse is possible and has many benefits.

It’s true that nothing can replace real smoke, dangerous heat, and the intensity and adrenaline of entering a burning building. There is really no way to simulate the conditions of a real fire at a firehouse, but there are many ways to train with a TIC that don’t involve a live fire or smoke conditions. My goal with these training tips is to help firefighters become proficient with a TIC so they stay safe when responding to a live fire.

1 Examples of thermal heat signatures. (Photos courtesy of Bullard
1 Examples of thermal heat signatures. (Photos courtesy of Bullard.)

Inside Scenarios

Let’s look at a few training scenarios that incident commanders can set up at the fire station for their firefighters.

You can use your apparatus room or day room by closing all the doors, putting tin foil over the windows, and turning off the lights to make the area as dark as possible. Have your firefighters gain familiarity with thermal imagery and its basic functions by scanning the room with the TIC in this dark setting. Expand your training environment to areas such as the kitchen, closet, bathroom, and bunkroom, which all closely mirror what you might encounter in a fire. Try building a house layout by setting up tables, chairs, couches, and other household items. Your team can begin navigating around the room and becoming comfortable moving from room to room.

Once your firefighters have become proficient in using the TIC to navigate in the dark rooms you have created, have them put on their turnout gear including their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Now you have replicated the conditions your firefighters will encounter when using a TIC in a real fire event. You can take this training one step further by placing a firefighter (a victim) in one of the rooms in your station and challenging your team to find the victim. You can time your team with and without the aid of a TIC to show how beneficial a TIC can be in quickly clearing rooms and identifying victims.

2 Examples of thermal heat signatures. (Photos courtesy of Bullard
2 Examples of thermal heat signatures. (Photos courtesy of Bullard.)

Find a space heater at your fire station, and place it on the other side of a closed door. Give the door several minutes to warm up. Have your firefighters conduct a search and see if they recognize the heat pattern prior to opening the door. Whether they notice it or not, you can use this opportunity to talk about the benefit of recognizing smaller heat sources. If you have both solid core and hollow core doors in your station, you can set up several space heaters to show the difference between these door construction types.

Ask several firefighters to sit or lie down on the furniture at the firehouse and assume different positions. Let them stay there for several minutes and then tell them to get up. What you will see on the TIC is the amount of body heat that the furniture absorbed and is now reemitting. This latent thermal effect can be used to show that a firefighter, during search and rescue, may see signs of victims before actually locating the victims. There might be latent thermal images on furniture or beds, which can be indications that victims are present.

Outside Scenarios

Have a few firefighters sit in vehicles, varying the number of occupants in each vehicle. Have them exit and then have other team members scan the vehicle seats with the TIC to see if they can determine how many people were in the vehicle. This can be beneficial when at a motor vehicle accident to determine if there are occupant ejections.

Have your firefighters scan the exterior of the firehouse with the TIC. Your TIC will show shades of grayscale imagery, which will appear in different locations at different times of the day or night (because of heat from the sun or heating/cooling units, for example). This gives firefighters an idea of what they may or may not see when they arrive at a house fire call with no fire showing.

Practice using the TIC for outdoor search and rescue. Send a few firefighters into the woods or any outdoor area, and have other members try to find them using the TIC. Be sure to practice this at different times of the day and night and in different weather because the imagery on the TIC will vary based on changing environmental conditions.

3 Examples of thermal heat signatures. (Photos courtesy of Bullard
3 Examples of thermal heat signatures. (Photos courtesy of Bullard.)

Many fire departments have containers of all types around the firehouse containing propane, diesel fuel, and gas, to name a few. Have your firefighters look at the different containers and practice determining liquid levels. Verify your findings by opening the container or simply looking at the gauge.

Firefighters don’t always have access to live fire training facilities to become proficient using a TIC. Being able to replicate, as closely as possible, actual fire conditions is a huge benefit for firefighters when using TICs. By being creative at the firehouse, firefighters can familiarize themselves with the features, benefits, and limitations of using a TIC. The more familiar firefighters are with using a TIC, the safer they will be when responding to a real fire call.

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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