Your Deployment Plan for Thermal Imaging

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By now, we are all aware that thermal imagers (TIs) save lives. The thermal imagers tool improves efficiency on the fireground and enhances firefighter safety. Helping firefighters see through thick smoke reduces search times for trapped victims and increases the odds of lives being saved. Simply put, a thermal imager lets firefighters search faster, assess an interior fire flow path quickly and accurately, and safely maneuver through a smoke-filled environment.

Many fire departments have one thermal imager, which is better than not having any at all. I’m seeing a trend, however, beginning to take shape in the fire service of deploying a second thermal imager and sometimes even more. I have seen several fire departments providing a thermal imager for the company officer and a second one for the crew members. So, there is one thermal imager in the front of the apparatus and another in the back of the cab for the crew. This practice is becoming more and more common with truck companies that use a split crew deployment of their staffing. Each part of the crew—whether conducting vent-enter-search, roof, outside vent, or other duties–has the additional capability the thermal imager brings in the hands of a trained firefighter.

Let’s take this thought process a step further. The best situation for a firefighting crew is to deploy four thermal imagers on each apparatus. This is the first step toward a deployment plan of one thermal imager for each firefighter operating in the interior of the structure. Deploying four thermal imagers speeds up the entire crew and increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the team. Increased team efficiency and accountability are key benefits, as is the advantage of having more eyes on the fire. The thermal imager’s ability to portray fire progression, display the cooling effects of water or foam, and signal extreme heat buildup enables firefighters to react at the moment to limit property loss, conserve water or foam supplies, and potentially evacuate before conditions become unsafe. These are all reasons to increase your thermal imager fleet.

Having a thermal imager on the apparatus is one thing, but having a firefighter grab the thermal imager before entering a burning structure is another. In past columns, I have written about how critical it is for firefighters to grab the thermal imager off the truck. When you pull up to a structure fire, the adrenaline is flowing, and it’s easy to forget to grab the thermal imager, as you are in a hurry to exit the apparatus. Then, when the situation is critical, someone realizes that the thermal imager is still on the truck. This is a critical point that I don’t mind writing about often because having the thermal imager with you saves lives. The thermal imager is a critical component of a crew’s tool kit. Bringing thermal imagers in on a call should be as second nature as putting on a self-contained breathing apparatus when entering a burning structure. Deploying a thermal imager should be part of your fire department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs).


Let’s look at a training example where the use of multiple thermal imagers would have aided the crew in extricating an entangled firefighter more quickly. Here was the assignment: A rapid intervention team (RIT) was conducting a training exercise with a fire department. The team’s assignment was to locate and disentangle a firefighter from a large pile of debris, provide immediate life support functions, and get the firefighter to the building exterior. This training was conducted under live-fire conditions with near-zero visibility. The department used the digital video recorder (DVR) on the thermal imager to videotape the session to aid in feedback following the training.

The team struggled with the disentanglement of the firefighter in zero-visibility conditions. During the debrief, it became clear that if one member of the RIT equipped with a thermal imager had been assigned to monitor the situation and provide instruction to the team about specific actions required to extricate the firefighter and execute the removal process, the task could have been done in a shorter time. The RIT can only advance as fast as its slowest team member, which is an argument for why deploying multiple thermal imagers is effective and efficient.

All fire departments–whether career, volunteer, combination, or industrial–can benefit from deploying multiple thermal imagers. Having additional thermal imagers on your apparatus as well as SOPs for deploying them is critical to firefighter safety. The efficiency that the thermal imager brings to a department can be magnified in situations where staffing is not optimal. The price of thermal imagers has been dropping over the past few years, and thermal imagers are more affordable than ever. Fire departments can more easily afford these valuable life-saving tools and embrace the use of multiple thermal imagers.



This article by Manfred Kihn was published in FireRescue Magazine in March issue 2021.