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Thermal Imaging Cameras for More Effective Firefighting

ESO Staff

Today’s firefighting agency has an invaluable tool in its mission to protect lives and properties: the thermal imaging camera (TIC). A TIC is a device that detects infrared energy, and then displays it on a color prism scale.

A TIC can be aimed at a scene of incident response to take immediate thermal readings of the area, with any notable differences in temperature – or anomalies – show up as a different color on the display. Many TICs for firefighting are designed to be especially rugged and offer substantial benefits to firefighters in a range of situations.

TIC technology for firefighting has been advancing at a rapid rate, making it more accessible and affordable than in past years. Today, several companies even offer TIC technology built into SCBA facepieces or the air gauge and PASS unit, leaving the firefighter’s hands free to work.

However, handheld TICs continue to be a very useful tool as well, as they often offer more display features and options, in-camera storage, and a wider range of motion (not limited to the positioning of the wearer’s helmet).

How to Use a TIC for Firefighting

TICs can now be considered a part of your PPE, adding a new set of data that can help you make better decisions and increase situational awareness. While the technical operation of devices may vary, understanding the range of potential uses for a TIC in firefighting can help visualize the value it can add to your response. For example:

Conducting Size-Ups

Now that TICs are much more affordable and lightweight, they are a perfect tool to add to your arsenal in size-ups and accessing a scene. Since TICs display differentials in temperature, they can alert you to hidden hot spots, overheating machinery parts, hazardous leaking materials, and hidden heat sources.

TICs can help identify civilians who are unable to move or respond, give you a better insight into structural integrity, and even help you track the location of all crew members working the scene in low visibility conditions. They can give you air temp readings across the structure and help you make the best plan for ventilation. All this information means a safer work environment and better chances at positive outcomes.   

Helping in Search and Rescue

Since TICs focus only on thermal differences and abnormalities, they are not affected by smoke, fog, and darkness, and can be an invaluable tool when searching for a missing person. For example, since water is typically cold, a person clinging to debris or branches in a flood in the dark would make an obvious difference in the TIC reading when scanning the area.

A TIC allows you to scan a large area and find victims who cannot call out or move on their own, and can reduce the number of personnel and resources needed to effectively cover a large area.

Finding Victims on the Fireground

Many TICs are hand-held and easily targeted at a room by a firefighter, helping him or her quickly scan an area and see through smoke-filled rooms to identify victims not easily scene or partially hidden by debris.

With body temperatures considerably cooler than the fire around them, their thermal signature shows an anomaly in the reading, creating an outline of their shape on the monitor of the TIC. In worst-case scenarios, a TIC can help locate a downed firefighter who cannot move or respond. In situations where seconds count, being able to find someone more quickly in low visibility can mean a difference in life and death.

Conducting Overhaul and Preventing Reignites

It’s not uncommon for a fire agency to be called back to the scene of a fire due to a reignite. Even when all signs of a fire point to it being extinguished, there may still be concealed fires smoldering inside of walls. Using a TIC makes it more effective to identify potential concealed fires by scanning for abnormalities in the heat signature of the building. According to FireRescue, you should start by using your TIC to scan from a distance of at least 10 to 15 feet away, so you have a broad perspective of any hidden heat conditions that may cause a fire to reignite.

Be sure to keep in mind ordinary heat sources that might be in the structure and cause abnormalities in the TIC reading, like a fuse box or appliance, active heat ducts inside the wall, or outside sunlight affecting warming an area.

Identifying Hidden Hot Spots

Similarly, a TIC can help firefighters on the scene identify concealed hot spots within walls. The obvious signs of a hidden fire – blistering paint, smoke emitting from a wall, crackling sounds from combustion – may not always be present. A TIC allows you to scan larger areas and identify any differences in temperature emanating from behind a closed wall.

Again, it’s important to leverage any pre-inspection data you may have to take into account what common objects – like fuse boxes or other heat-emitting appliances – that might be inside the wall and causing the abnormality, rather than a hot spot.

Working with Hazardous Materials

A TIC can be especially helpful when working with spills and hazardous material clean up. Even when the material is relatively invisible to the naked eye, it will have a different temperature than its surrounding environment, causing it to display as a different color on the TIC device.

Typically, a TIC can also “see” inside a hazardous material container to show how much is still contained, since the air inside the container is a different temperature than the material itself. This information can help fire fighters on scene make better tactical decisions on stopping, containing, and cleaning up spillage. Additionally, the ability to identify leaking liquid material can be helpful on the scene of motor vehicle crashes, especially at night, and help prevent further injuries or fires.

Supporting Local Law Enforcement

If you have a high-quality and rugged TIC, you may get a call from your local law enforcement agencies to borrow it at times. For example, a TIC is especially helpful in a search for a fugitive who may be trying to conceal himself in low-visibility areas. Law enforcement agencies typically utilize night vision devices more commonly than TICs; however, while night vision technology enhances imagery in very low light, it cannot detect thermal signatures hidden under debris or camouflage.

For this reason, TICs are often a more effective tool in a wide range of police situations, from fugitive pursuit, hazmat response, search and rescue, maritime operations, and scene containment. TICs have even been used to search vehicles and identify hidden compartments full or contraband or evidence. Additionally, a TIC can help on the scene of motor vehicle crashes, helping locate unconscious or injured passengers and keep track of personnel working the scene, especially in the dark or low visibility conditions.

Fighting Wildland Fires

TICs can be especially helpful in the wildfire setting, allowing spotters and teams to keep a better awareness of increasing temps and shifting paths of the fire. TICs can be utilized on the ground or from aircraft and drones. The more advanced notice, the less the likelihood of crews getting trapped or overtaken by a surging fire. Additionally, TICs can increase safety on the fireground by ensuring vehicle operators and their spotters have full awareness of the location of crews, preventing vehicles and apparatus from striking and injuring firefighters obscured by smoke or flames.

Better Data, Better Decisions

As firefighting continues to get “smarter,” firefighters will continue to make the most of real-time data on the scene, helping keep crews safer and make more effective decisions during incident response. Thermal imaging cameras will no doubt continue to play an important role in pushing forward the limits of situational awareness on the fireground.

Want more insight into you fire department’s operational data, incident reporting, and staff management? Check out ESO Fire, the next generation of Fire Record Management System software tools.

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