Fire Fighting in Canada

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Back to Basics: April 2010

The thermal imaging camera has changed the way rapid intervention teams operate. RIT members no longer function blindly inside structures that are on fire.

April 12, 2010
By Mark van der Feyst

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The thermal imaging camera has changed the way rapid intervention teams operate. RIT members no longer function blindly inside structures that are on fire. The TIC has enabled us to see thermal or heat energy inside structures and is a useful tool for conducting searches for civilian victims and for overhaul operations. It is also useful for searching for lost or missing people in open areas such as fields. TICs help us determine the number of passengers in a car at a accident by looking at the heat energy left on the seats. When we conduct primary searches for civilian victims inside a structure, a TIC increases our chances of finding victims and allows us to quickly locate and remove them. The same tactical consideration can be applied to locating a mayday firefighter; the TIC makes it easier for us to locate downed firefighters and reduces the removal time.

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Examples of two styles of TICs. Both are hand-held devices.

Photo by Mark van der Feyst


We need to remember that the TIC works on thermal or heat energy.It displays the temperature difference between hot and cold objects and presents an image of the surrounding environment. The TIC creates pictures made of heat exposure rather than of light. But it has limitations. TICs cannot see through objects or water and will detect the user’s reflection if it is pointed at a shiny object such as a mirror or a piece of metal. The one big limitation is its battery; the TIC is useless if the battery is not charged regularly.

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The TIC is usually among our tools when we conduct overhaul operations to look for fire extension behind walls and around doors and windows. It would be beneficial to use the TIC at the start of the operation rather than only at the end of it but firefighters often tend to overlook this. When RIT members establish the staging area, they need to make sure they include the TIC among their tools and use it at the beginning of the operation.

When a firefighter declares a mayday, time is of the essence. The quicker a mayday firefighter can be located and extricated, the better the chance of survival. When RIT members conduct a search for a mayday firefighter, they are going to either go to the last known location or follow the sound of the PASS alarm. Following the sound of the PASS alarm is quicker than going to the last known location and beginning the search from there. Regardless, either of these methods means RIT members are searching blindly. Having a TIC enables them to speed up the search.

In RIT training, students are taught that the officer or team leader holds the TIC. Using the TIC means the officer will be able to direct the crew much more efficiently. However, RIT members cannot rely wholly on the TIC during a mayday search; they still need to use search skills. While the TIC is a good tool for helping us locate the mayday firefighter, too many firefighters rely on the TIC to lead them in and fall prey to the trap of the TIC. The TIC shows only what it is being aimed at. If the TIC is being aimed up at the ceiling, it will show only an image of what is up at the ceiling. If we use this device to lead us in, we are going to miss important things like holes in the floor, conditions above us and our point of reference. When we search using our skills, we are going to be either using a left-hand or right-hand search. The reference point is the wall. If the RIT team is using a search line, the reference point is the search line. The reference point is important because it is our way out. Not having a reference point and relying too much on the TIC to lead us in and to lead us out is a dangerous mistake. The TIC is not our reference point. Ensure that you always have a reference point with either the building or with a search rope.

When the RIT team is inside the structure and has located the mayday firefighter, the TIC can be used to monitor the conditions around the mayday firefighter and the RIT team. The officer will want to be located a little bit back from the RIT, allowing team members to do their jobs while monitoring the conditions. Monitoring the conditions will also help the incident commander control the fire. If the conditions are getting worse, the RIT officer will have to decide whether it is acceptable to continue the operation or call for more resources.

The TIC can also help us to figure out whether the mayday firefighter is breathing. The TIC shows dark images that represent cooler surfaces. With the TIC aimed at the SCBA of the mayday firefighter, we can see if the hose going from the face piece to the reducing block is cooler – or darker – than the air in the cylinder going to the face piece. If it is not dark in colour on the screen, then there is a good chance that the firefighter is not breathing.

As the RIT officer is monitoring the fire conditions around the operation, he may determine that the original exit point is not sufficient. He will be able to locate a secondary point of exit using the TIC. This secondary point will offer a quicker removal process, thus getting the mayday firefighter out of the danger zone more quickly.

The TIC is only be as good as the person using it, so practise with the TIC and become familiar with its operation.


Mark van der Feyst is a 10-year veteran of the fire service who
works for the City of Woodstock Fire Department in Ontario. Mark
teaches in Canada and the U.S. He is a local level suppression
instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, an instructor for
the Justice Institute of BC and an associate professor of fire science
with Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont. He can be reached at
Mark@FireStarTraining.com


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