Thermal imaging tools can be used for so much more
By Carl Nix
The use of thermal imaging in the fire service continues to evolve as firefighters look to expand the technology to every aspect of firefighting. We know how valuable the technology is for interior fire operations and direct fire suppression activities, but how can we apply this tool to help firefighters with aerial attack applications? A thermal imaging camera (TIC) can be extremely helpful to firefighters on the ladder crew. This group of firefighters is responsible for placing the apparatus in the right spot, opening vent holes, and positioning the master stream. The decisions made by the ladder crew are critical to attacking the fire aerially and on the ground.
Placing the apparatus for attacking the fire from above depends on many factors, including the type of structure, building construction, obstructions overhead and on the ground, the size of the area needing to be contained, and access points. Knowing the best place to position the ladder truck is a critical one as hazards, scene coordination, and overall effectiveness are impacted. The greatest concern with apparatus placement is the presence and location of overhead electrical lines. Inadvertent contact with electrical lines can have catastrophic consequences for anyone on or touching the apparatus. When fighting a fire at night, power lines can be difficult to see. Add inclement weather, and it can be even harder to determine where these lines are. This is where your TIC is a valuable tool. Using a TIC can help the truck operator determine the best placement of the apparatus to help with search and rescue, extrication, ventilation, and overhaul.
Aerial ladders are often used in fighting fires where high-rise buildings are often affected. Add smoke and darkness to this scene with zero visibility, and it’s nearly impossible to see the structure’s upper windows and roof line for hidden dangers. Your TIC can help identify electrical lines because electricity generates heat as it travels through the line. This heat is identifiable by the TIC, making the power lines easy to locate. Now, scan the scene using your TIC to help locate problems such as electrical service wires, window-mounted air conditioners, and a host of other hazards you need to avoid. The TIC can also help detect people who are at the windows but obscured by smoke from the fire below. Be aware, however, that your TIC should never be used to determine whether down lines are energized. Although the TIC can provide reliable identification of the presence of power lines, it should not be used to evaluate energized vs. nonenergized.
Using your TIC to perform a variety of ventilation tasks is also an effective use of the tool. Use your TIC to identify the warmest area of the roof. If you are in the bucket, be sure to scan the roof from your elevated position with the TIC to identify the area of the roof where the heat is collecting or the warmest part of the roof. Now that you’ve scanned the roof area, you know where to start making your cuts. Remember, during the day warm spots can easily be mistaken for higher temperatures under the roofing material. Also, use your TIC to scan the overall structure to monitor the effectiveness of vent operations. If you notice that one area of the roof is warmer than another and that location is supported by visible fire conditions, you may be able to move the ventilation hole to a more appropriate spot. Your TIC can help you identify the most effective place for your ventilation hole.
Elevated master streams for fighting fires is a technique deployed because a fire is present in an upper floor and water is being sent down from above. How often have you seen the gallons of water streaming from a ladder pipe shooting over the top of the building, never hitting the fire? Give the firefighter a TIC, and now you have a more precision aim at the fire and a much better chance of suppressing it quickly and safely.
Heavy smoke conditions, or simply darkness, can impede the ability of the crew to effectively place the stream where it is needed. Using a TIC lets you direct the stream to its intended target. You can use the TIC to place the stream with pinpoint accuracy and get the water exactly where it needs to go—no more guessing involved. Operations will be quicker and more efficient while using less water. Be sure the TIC is properly secured to the firefighter in a way that wouldn’t impede his movements while fighting the fire.
It’s a good idea when fighting a structure fire that involves more than one ladder company that a TIC is equipped on each apparatus. Ladder companies often split up on the fireground to simultaneously work together to fight the fire, and having an apparatus without a TIC impacts the safety and efficiency of all the responding crews. Having multiple TICs on the apparatus lets the crews operate at a much higher efficiency level than if they only had one TIC available.
A TIC provides firefighters with many uses and shouldn’t be thought of for only interior fire suppression. It is a valuable tool to firefighting crews on ladder companies, who benefit greatly from the technology a TIC offers.
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.