Training firefighters is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Today, our fire service is changing, as we find ourselves responding more to medical emergencies than fighting fires.
We continue to embrace technology, albeit cautiously, as we look for tools to help us perform our jobs more effectively and safely. Improvements have been made to equipment including halligan bars and ladders. We are now equipping emergency medical technicians and paramedics with portable ultrasound devices and handheld portable blood analyzers. The fire service is even looking into virtual reality training.
Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) have certainly come a long way as well, from the large, heavy models to ergonomically designed lighter models that attach to a firefighter’s turnout gear to TICs that are equipped in a firefighter’s self-contained breathing apparatus face piece. With all these advances, we are a safer fire service.
My instincts as a firefighter have come from years of fighting fires and experiencing close calls that could have ended tragically. Those instincts were formed before the TIC was a firefighting tool. My instincts come from training, experience, and never feeling overconfident when responding to a fire call. I have learned to always expect the unexpected. With all the latest technology in the fire service, the TIC may be the one tool that can cause firefighters to feel overconfident and make mistakes. Let’s look at a couple of instances where a TIC can give firefighters a false sense of security.
There is proof that the use of thermal imaging technology in the fire service makes our jobs safer. It allows us to move faster through the structure and see where we normally couldn’t see. Trapped victims have been saved from burning structures because the TIC has given firefighters the sight to identify victims through the smoke and quickly escape a dangerous situation. The speed at which the crew can move is greatly increased because of the use of thermal imaging. When training to be a firefighter, one of the first tactics taught is right-hand and left-hand search patterns to find the egress points. This is a critical tactic. Using this tactic is often abandoned, however, when firefighters are equipped with a TIC.
Always keep in mind that the TIC is there to guide. What if the TIC gets dropped or lost? Firefighters must always be aware of their reference points to escape a dangerous situation.
It’s also important to be aware of the speed with which the crew is traveling when using a TIC. The firefighter with the TIC tends to move faster and can lose sight of his crew. It’s critical to always remember to stay with your partner. These basic firefighting skills are critical to our safety and should not be abandoned because a TIC is being used.
Depending on the heat conditions within a structure, we don’t always get low or crawl because standing and walking are so instinctual. Walking through a structure using a TIC and looking down at the floor will show you shades of black, white, and gray. Understanding the temperature beneath us is critical, but verifying what the TIC is showing us is even more critical. The black/white represents the temperature of something but not necessarily the floor. If we didn’t have a TIC, we would be checking the floor with an ax, a halligan, or a pike pole to ensure the surface is stable. To ensure the crew’s safety, we need to interpret the image we see on the TIC display and still verify the surface’s integrity. After establishing that it is a solid surface, we can use the TIC to monitor color changes to understand if the integrity of the structure is in jeopardy.
During my TIC training, I often find that firefighters don’t fully understand or misinterpret the images being displayed on the TIC. Common mistakes made by firefighters when looking at a TIC display include misreading a white area to be a hidden fire or interpreting a puddle on the floor to be a hole. This is the reason firefighters must always verify what they think the TIC is telling them.
Ask yourself when you enter a building with your TIC how often you are looking down at the floor. Most likely, you are pointing the TIC toward the floor because you’re concerned about possible victims trapped inside the structure. When we think this way, we risk missing other dangers that might be lurking around us. Scanning the conditions of the walls looking for warning signs of possible collapse or understanding the integrity of the building is critical to staying safe. We need to be aware of what is around us for our safety. When we enter a room with a TIC, I recommend doing a full 360° search. This means scanning the walls to the left and right, in front and behind, the floor, and the ceiling.
A TIC helps firefighters do what we can’t do on our own by seeing through smoke, identifying hot spots, monitoring building conditions, quickly finding victims, and so much more. It’s a powerful tool, but it doesn’t replace a firefighter’s training or instincts. Always trust in the firefighting tactics you learned in fire school. By combining our firefighter training with the use of thermal imaging technology, we increase our chances of staying safe.
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.