By Carl Nix
We are living in an age where technology is constantly evolving, resulting in the latest advancements in engineering, research, communications, and education. This is certainly affecting the way firefighters fight fires. There is no doubt that advances in technology have improved our equipment, turnout gear, fire apparatus, and overall knowledge of firefighting.
Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) are perhaps one of the most high-tech tools we have in our arsenal for fighting fires, which is why specialized response groups or technical rescue forces use the TIC when responding to emergencies that involve water, confined spaces, trenches, vehicle extrication, tornadoes, and floods. Recently, we have seen mudslides, forest fires, and flooding occurring across the United States that have resulted in lives being lost. The fire service is one of the first responders on the scene when these disasters occur. Our willingness to embrace new technologies is why we are well prepared to face these disasters.
When dealing with specialized rescue situations such as natural disasters, firefighters can use TICs very effectively for a range of operations. Technical rescue forces often own a TIC or have access to one and understand the TIC’s powerful technology. There are TICs with technology exclusively for specialized rescues, such as building collapses. Some crews use TICs mounted on helicopters for search and rescue. These specialized TICs are well-suited for specific operations but not practical for fire departments that respond to structural fires. For the most part, TICs for the fire service are relatively simple in comparison. Since first responders are typically first on the scene, they most likely will be using a TIC designed for firefighting.
The TICs used for the fire service are typically fixed-focus and relatively short-range tools, designed mostly for interior fire attack; however, these TICs can detect a human body form several hundred feet away or more, depending on the temperature of the surrounding objects and overall environmental conditions. To search a wide area, such as an industrial facility or an expansive open area, a TIC can be invaluable for conducting the search, performing risk assessments, or assisting in prioritizing resources.
When conducting a confined space rescue in a cellar or basement following a natural disaster such as a mudslide, flood, or tornado, the firefighting TIC is a valuable tool. It’s also an extremely beneficial tool to allow crews to easily see their surroundings and navigate in the dark, particularly when scene lighting is unavailable. In these situations, the firefighting TIC can help locate trapped or injured victims and bring them to safety. A TIC can also be used during confined space rescue to delay a structure collapse or secure the scene. When conducting victim searches, firefighters should look for out-of-place heat signatures and limbs and extremities protruding from debris, under tables, or around objects.
Consider a storm that has gained strength during the early morning hours and formed into a violent tornado that rips through a community. Before residents can take shelter, the tornado has touched down and destroyed homes along its path. During a storm that formed a tornado several years ago, a crew of firefighters arrived on the scene and were told by family members that their young child was missing. The family had been frantically searching through the debris but couldn’t find the child. The firefighting crew had a TIC and immediately began scanning the debris looking for any signs of life. The TIC showed a section of a wall that was warmer than the rest of the debris. As the firefighting crew removed the debris, they found the child alive and resting behind the wall.
A TIC can help find safe ways in and out of dangerous areas. A TIC is not affected by outside elements like lights or night vision and gives emergency responders the ability to see through driving rains, blowing debris, and fog. If your TIC has a zoom feature, you can easily see down streets for down trees, power lines, or other hazards that may be blocking the way. You can identify collapsed structures or structures that are unstable, structural cracks that are forming, and buildings that are smoldering or on fire.
A TIC can see through the smoke and help locate victims. Other TIC uses for identifying victims in a disaster include locating people who are in trees or on rooftops and victims who are trapped or buried in rubble. A TIC can also help the firefighting crew plan and navigate through dangerous territory by avoiding cables and shards of sharp glass or metal that could injure emergency responders.
Owning a TIC can help us be better prepared to face the challenges.
Carl Nix is a 32-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.