Use the TIC to identify dangers
By Carl Nix
A Gallup poll in 2017 showed that 64 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana. Today in the United States, recreational marijuana is legal in nine states and medical marijuana is legal in 29 states. Experts predict that the legal marijuana market will reached nearly $25 billion in sales by 2021 as more states pass legislation making marijuana legal.
Why am I writing about marijuana use when this column is about fighting fires using thermal imaging technology? The changing landscape of marijuana use poses a significant risk to firefighters who are responding to a fire call and find themselves in the middle of a grow house. Firefighters need to be aware of the dangers lurking inside a grow house to help protect them from a situation that could turn disastrous. When you first arrive on the scene, these homes look like every other house in the neighborhood from the outside. It’s what’s happening inside the home that puts firefighters at risk and where the use of thermal imaging technology can have life-saving effects.
Once the firefighting crew arrives on a scene and prepares to attack the fire, it should be common practice for a firefighter to grab the thermal imaging camera (TIC) off the truck and begin to perform size-up. Always start at the roof level with your TIC, checking the chimney, vents, and eaves before working your way to the attic and walls (include doors and windows). Be sure to check the crawlspace, basement areas, and dryer vent locations with the TIC. The TIC readings will be the first indication to the firefighting crew that this structural fire call may not be your typical call.
If your TIC screen is showing an excessive amount of heat coming from the chimney, vents, or basement area, it’s time to start questioning what is happening inside the home. Use your TIC to compare the heat signatures you are seeing to the heat signatures from neighboring structures to give you a baseline. After this comparison, if your TIC is still reading excessive heat coming from inside the structure, it’s time to alert the utility and police departments that you suspect a grow operation.
The police are aware of the dangers inside a grow house and will advise your firefighting crew of the potential risks they are facing including fortified doors and windows, booby traps, and unknown hydro sources from bypassing the meter or generator. As the firefighting crew enters the structure, it’s critical to proceed with caution and use the TIC for safely navigating obstacles such as low-hanging wiring and ventilation ductwork, which can entangle and entrap firefighters. The excessive heat created in a grow house is from the sodium vapor bulbs used, which can range from 250 to 1,000 watts. This type of heat generated from the bulbs is why it’s critical to use your TIC in an exterior size-up before entering the structure.
Electrocution is the most common risk firefighters face when entering a grow house, so it’s important to be mindful of bypassed wiring from sources punched into a basement wall or crawlspace. The TIC will show imminent fire hazards by identifying excessive power usage coming off meters, which is a strong indication that a grow operation is inside the structure. Use the TIC to help you move quickly through the structure, identifying the heat source to eliminate the fire risk.
The use of medical and nonmedical marijuana is growing in the United States; thus, firefighters must know how to fight a grow operation fire. When firefighters respond to these types of fires, there is usually no readily observable signs telling them this could be a grow operation structure and a potentially dangerous situation. Firefighters must be aware of toxic and explosive gases, booby traps, weakened structures, electrocution, entrapment and entanglement hazards, and blocked egress and access. The TIC holds the key to understanding what’s inside a grow operation structure and can help lessen the risks associated with fighting this type of fire.
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.