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It’s true, the pandemic has made for some challenging times for everyone. Essential frontline workers go about their daily tasks to the brink of near exhaustion. While fire departments may not have suffered the extreme upheaval that healthcare workers have, much has changed at the firehouse during this time as well. I’m thinking particularly about your training program. Sometimes in challenging situations, training can be the first area to be neglected. With the social distancing rules in place, some fire departments have continued with their drills, some have been hesitant about bringing extra crews together in person, and others have halted all training until further notice.
Identify reflective materials in your thermal images
If your training schedule has been disrupted, use this time as a refresher. I’ve pulled together the most easily forgotten thermal imaging tips. Let’s dive in!
- Keeping your vision. Wipe both the display and front germanium lens on your thermal imager (TI) often during fire attack/suppression. Dirt, carbon, and fogging inhibit the ability for heat to pass through the lens to the detector, lowering the level of heat detail on the monitor. This can limit your information and may impact proper image interpretation.
- Know what’s normal. We all understand that a thermal imaging camera can tell us what is hot versus what is not hot. But, if we don’t benchmark what “normal” looks like, how do we know what is not comparatively? For instance, a structure in the heat of summer will look completely different in the cold of winter. Both appear as “normal” heat images based on the emissivity of the building construction materials, temperature, and sun exposure. With regular practice, it will be easier to understand whether the scene you’re seeing appears normal or not.
- Look behind you. When entering an unknown structure using a thermal imaging camera, it’s important to also turn and look back even though you are using a thermal imaging camera. As you move through a structure, passing through multiple doors, the landscape looks different at your back. Occasionally, take a look at your potential exit course so you can paint the image in your mind.
- Beware of reflections. Modern-day kitchens can potentially be a room full of reflective surfaces. Stainless appliances, granite counters, high-gloss wood cabinets, and marble or ceramic floors can all give false impressions because the thermal energy is reflected off these surfaces. In a kitchen with thermally reflective surfaces, your thermal imaging camera may appear to show a large body fire in one area; however, on further inspection, you may find that the heat source shown on your thermal imaging camera is merely the heat reflected on a stainless steel surface from a body of fire in another nearby location.
- Share what you see. Paint verbal images for the rest of your crew as you use thermal imaging. Remember, you may have the benefit of a strong visual through your thermal imaging camera, but often your crew following behind will be blind in the current conditions. Giving good verbal descriptions of room layouts and contents will improve the ability of the entire crew to move more effectively through unknown structures.
- Don’t forget the floor. Sounding the floor is still required, even when you’re using thermal imaging. Did you know that, to a thermal imaging camera, liquids on a floor will often appear the same as a hole in the floor? The thermal imaging camera will identify a difference in the floor area. Increase your safety by combining your visual cues with basic firefighting tactics to better identify floor stability.
- Play hide-and-seek in the woods. This is a great training activity while social distancing. Are you prepared and understand the limits as well as the advantages of grid or distance detection that a thermal imaging camera offers? Understand that having a cooler background while looking for a victim who is generating more heat will be seen for a greater distance. The opposite occurs when you have a warmer background–a victim not generating as much heat will only be detected at a shorter distance. Learn what you can see and not see and understand the relationship between distance and body heat.
- Hazard checks. At motor vehicle collisions (MVCs) involving rollover vehicles, be sure to use a Thermal Imaging Camera to check for any potential hazards such as down power lines and fuel spills. Victim check. Using a Thermal Imaging Camera, look at all seats front and back including child-carrying seats for heat signatures during MVC rollovers or down motorcycles to ensure you don’t overlook ejected victims.
- Keep batteries in top condition. Battery maintenance on your TI is vital. You can maintain your batteries by draining and recharging on a schedule. Double-check with your crew; if you aren’t actively implementing a battery maintenance schedule, here’s my favorite tip: Every time “C” shift works on Friday, have them drain the battery, replace it with a spare, and recharge the other.
- Grab the thermal imaging camera on every call. There may be some calls where a thermal imaging camera doesn’t seem like a great fit. However, it can provide a benefit in many circumstances. For example, when working in confined spaces (i.e., finding victims in tunnels and culvert systems), use your thermal imaging camera to detect humans at 10 meters or more, whereas you’ll only have about 15 meters of visibility with a flashlight.
Thermal imaging cameras are only as effective as the end user's interpretation or misinterpretation of the image. To an inexperienced eye, the best technology can be useless or possibly fatal. Training during these unprecedented times is equally important, as the message is clear:
practice! practice!! practice!!!
This article by Manfred Kihn was published in FireRescue Magazine in May issue 2021.