B y C a r l N i x When an incident commander (IC) arrives on scene, one of his first challenges is to identify the seat of the fire. Coordinating a scene full of irefighters, apparatus, and other resources—often from ultiple agencies—while performing a multitude of tasks in an environment where decisions can make the differ- ence between life and death is a lot to ask. This is the job
of the IC: being responsible for the safety of all involved as
well as the successful outcome of an often rapidly evolving
and unpredictable incident. The demands placed on an
IC can be overwhelming; that’s where a thermal imaging
camera (TIC) can help.
One of the most significant challenges an IC faces is the
ability to quickly gather vital information on the conditions unfolding at the scene. Obstacles including rapidly
changing conditions, unknown building construction
features, blinding smoke, and poor nighttime visibility
make this job incredibly difficult. Many hazards are also
simply invisible to the naked eye. Experienced firefighters
will agree that if initial information is gathered quickly and
accurately, incidents tend to go well. When an incident is
running on inaccurate or incomplete information, problems can occur and result in the loss of a structure or a life.
Fortunately, many of these obstacles are now being
addressed with the use of thermal imaging technology that
enables firefighters to rapidly and efficiently collect information that would otherwise be unavailable. With this information, ICs can better determine the resources required and
where to deploy them. Most importantly, this new information has made operations safer and has meant the difference
between life and death for responders and civilians.
More and more fire departments are realizing this
benefit and are equipping chief officers with TICs in their
vehicles to ensure ICs have the necessary information to
make the best decisions on the scene. Using a TIC can
help pinpoint a concentration of heat within an area of
a building, saving a great deal of time, especially in large
commercial or multistory structures. An IC with this
knowledge can better direct firefighters regarding their
point of entry and plan of attack.
Take a structure fire, for example. In planning for a
response at a structure fire, the IC should consider the total
number of TICs available on scene, including the number
of units that will be there, where they are coming from, and
how quickly they can arrive. There can never be too many
TICs at an incident, so every effort should be made to have
and use as many units as possible. The IC can use a TIC for
size-up and assessment to gain valuable information that will
help him establish the objectives to contain the fire.
The TIC provides many benefits for an IC at the scene
including the detection of heat patterns on the outside of
the structure, especially on the roof. For example, when
accessing the roof, the IC may notice a strong heat signature showing a section of the roof being much warmer
than other sections of the roof. The primary consideration
in evaluating structures from the outside is the impact of
the sun. When using a TIC to evaluate structures during
the daylight hours, it’s important to be mindful of the
sun’s effect. If the roof area of the home is fully exposed to
sunlight but you see a distinct pattern where parts of the
roof are warmer than others, this might be an indication
of a fire in the attic area. If the pattern of sunlight closely
matches the thermal pattern you see on the TIC, then the
roof may simply be heated by the sun.
Fighting a structural fire at night or during inclement
weather poses obstacles in visibility. An IC can use a TIC
to improve visibility during these conditions. The TIC
does not use light to generate an image, making it an ideal
tool for seeing at night. An IC can access the entire scene
using the TIC in low visibility or weather-related conditions that make it difficult to view scenes with the naked
eye. Many ICs are using TICs very effectively in structural
incidents every day and lives are being protected as a result.
Using a TIC on a hazmat call is another example of where
an IC can make a difference by taking the guesswork out
of determining the existence of a material and the extent of
contamination. In many instances, a TIC can help the IC
determine the level of a solid or liquid in a storage container. Always remember that the TIC does not actually see
through the container, but it senses temperature differences
on the surface of the container. In some cases, the temperature of the contents will not transmit to the surface. For
example, the container may be insulated, full, or impacted
by a strong environmental condition such as direct sunlight
or freezing temperatures. In such cases, a TIC will not help
to identify the level of product inside the container.
The use of thermal imaging technology provides the IC
with critical information to make well informed and
necessary decisions quickly in the heat of the fire. All fire
service personnel responding to an incident need a TIC,
including the IC.
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.
Benefits of Thermal Imaging for the IC