Using Thermal Imaging after NATURAL DISASTERS

Natural disasters are exactly how they sound: a disaster. With each natural disaster that occurs, we learn something new and can better prepare for the next one.

The fire service is a key responder during most disasters, so staying educated, prepared, and up to date on the latest technology is arguably one of the important factors when discussing how to respond to a natural disaster. The technology we use today is ever-evolving, resulting in more research, better communication, and more thorough education. This also results in our overall knowledge of disaster preparedness.

Thermal imagers (TIs) are perhaps one of the most high-tech tools we have in our arsenal for fighting fires, which is why they are used when responding to emergencies that involve water, confined spaces, trenches, vehicle extrication, and search and rescues.

Natural disasters are happening more frequently, which means more mudslides, forest fires, tornados, hurricanes, and extreme flooding conditions, resulting in missing persons and lives being lost. The fire service’s willingness to embrace new technologies and stay at the forefront of advancements in technology is why firefighters are well prepared to face these disasters when they occur.

When dealing with rescue situations during natural disasters, firefighters can use TIs for a wide range of effective operations. Highly skilled task force technical rescue teams often own several TIs or have access to them and understand the TI’s powerful technology. There are TIs with exclusive technology for specialized rescues, such as building collapses or long-range surveillance. Some crews use what are called gimble-mounted forward-looking infrared (FLIR) TIs, which are mounted either on the side of or underneath helicopters for search and rescue. These specialized TIs are well-suited for specific operations but not practical for fire departments that respond to structural fires. For the most part, TIs for the fire service are relatively simple in comparison. Since first responders are typically first on the scene, they most likely will be using a TI designed for firefighting.

The TIs used for the fire service are typically fix-focused and short-range tools, designed mostly for interior fire attack. However, these TIs can detect a human body from several hundred feet away or more, depending on the temperature of the surrounding objects and overall environmental conditions. To search a wide area, such as an industrial facility or an expansive open area, a TI can be invaluable for conducting the search, performing risk assessments, or assisting in prioritizing resources.

When conducting a confined space rescue in a cellar or basement following a disaster such as a mudslide, flood, or tornado, the firefighting TI is a valuable tool. It is also an extremely beneficial tool that allows crews to easily see their surroundings and navigate in the dark when lighting is unavailable. In these situations, the firefighting TI can help locate trapped or injured victims so personnel can bring them to safety. A TI can also be used during confined space rescue in an imminent structural collapse or to help secure the scene. When conducting victim searches, firefighters should look for out-of-place heat signatures from a hand, foot, or other extremities protruding from debris, under tables, or surrounding objects. Firefighting TIs make the search and rescue process faster and more effective, revealing critical details even without a fire present.

You can save lives when using a TI during a natural disaster. For example, take a storm that has gained strength early in an afternoon and has formed into a violent tornado that rips through a community. Even with the technology of early warning systems in place, its residents don’t always have time to take shelter. Things happen in an instant, and the tornado touches down and destroys homes along its path. A TI can help locate victims throughout the scattered debris, but it can also help find safe ways in and out of dangerous areas.

A TI is not affected by outside elements or by daytime vs. nighttime and gives emergency responders the ability to see in limited visibility conditions. If your TI has a zoom feature, you can easily look into the streets for fallen trees, power lines, or other hazards that may be blocking the way. You can identify collapsed or unstable structures, structural cracks that are forming, and buildings that are smoldering or on fire.

When smoke is present in a disaster, it can cause confusion. A TI can see through the smoke and help locate victims. In other disasters, such as a condo building or crane collapse, a TI can be used to help locate victims who are trapped or buried in rubble, who may be stuck in trees that were swept away in raging flood waters, or who have sought refuge on rooftops or other locations. A TI can also help the firefighting crew plan and navigate through dangerous territory by avoiding cables and dangerous debris that could injure emergency responders.

First responders who have access to thermal imaging technology when disasters strike can help save lives. None of us know when the next disaster might hit, but owning a TI can help us be better prepared to face the challenges.

The day I wrote this article, I received four weather alerts for tornado warnings in my area. A city 15 minutes away was hit with an EF-2 tornado. It just goes to show that natural disasters happen instantly and often. Make sure you are prepared and educated on the latest tools available.


This article by Manfred Kihn was published in Fire Apparatus Magazine in October issue 2021.