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Thermal imagers are not without risks

Know what your TI is telling you and what it’s not

February 16, 2022
By Manfred Kihn

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Firefighters staying low and assessing the conditions with a TI during a training burn. Photo credit: Bullard

These are unprecedented times for all of us and although fire departments may not be responding to as many structural calls as they are EMS calls, it’s even more important to continue training with their thermal imager (TI) to ensure firefighters stay mentally focused. It’s critical that firefighters keep their TI skills sharp for when a structural fire call does come in because the TI tool could potentially save a life. Let’s look at training firefighters to use the TI safely and the risks that are associated with interpreting what the TI is telling you.

Firefighters using TIs must understand the general risks associated with a TI and how to avoid those risks. Misuse of a TI, as with any fire fighting tool, can have disastrous consequences. The most commonly made mistake by firefighters when using a TI is thinking it’s ok to stand or walk in an unsafe environment. 

Let’s explore this behaviour in detail. When I first trained to be a firefighter many, many years ago, I was taught to stay low and crawl in hostile environments to avoid exposure to heat and dangers you could not see. We didn’t have the protective equipment firefighters have today. The materials used for firefighter turnout gear has become so advanced and durable that firefighters now feel comfortable walking or standing in hot environments. Years ago, firefighters had to stay low because their gear could not provide the respiratory or thermal protection against a fire. Think about the last training you conducted. Did you walk around the burn building while you were teaching your young student firefighters to crawl? During training exercises, trainers need to get low and crawl to show students how to successfully and safely maneuver through an aggressive fire.  

Crawling helps firefighters navigate through a structure by avoiding the usual items you encounter like furniture, debris and stairs. When you are in a smoke-filled environment and visibility is negligible, the use of a TI becomes your eyes to find the hazards. Here’s where the false sense of security comes in. The TI gives you the ability to see the environment, which makes firefighters think that a structure can be navigated by walking through it when using a TI. But this is false.  

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Never abandon your basic firefighter training because you are maneuvering through a structure with a high-powered, cutting-edge tool that gives you sight. Standing and walking in hazardous environments can have dangerous results. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that staying low and crawling helps firefighters limit their exposure to dangerous gases that are forming inside a structure. Secondly, some hazards are difficult to identify using a TI, such as a hole in the floor or furniture in a room with a constant temperature. When using a TI, you no longer have use of your peripheral vision that helps identify risks. A TI can only detect a potential risk when you point the imager directly at the risk. A TI essentially gives firefighters tunnel-vision. 

There are ways to avoid the tunnel-vision effect when using a TI. Firefighters can overcome this restricted feature of the TI by enlarging the firefighter’s field of view using the S-scan method. The S-scan method is a simple search exercise that shows firefighters how to scan an entire room using the TI to evaluate the fire conditions and search for victims. When using the S-scan method, the firefighter moves the TI from shoulder to shoulder, scanning near the ceiling, then across the middle of the wall, then down at the floor. The shoulder-to-shoulder, high-middle-low scan creates an S-shaped pattern.  By using this procedure, the firefighter is scanning the majority of the room using a TI and is now giving the firefighter a more complete view of the structure, room by room. 

Using a TI gives firefighters a false sense of security. It’s up to the trainers and senior firefighters, like me, who have been in the service for many years, to constantly remind our young students not to stand or walk through a structure fire using a TI. It’s critical that training drills with a TI are performed in the most realistic manner, which means always stay low when maneuvering through dark and smoky conditions. Repetition is key to learning when running training drills. Just like an athlete repeats the same training drills day in and day out, firefighters need to practice staying low and crawling while using a TI. Don’t let your firefighters assume they are safe because the TI is allowing them to see in environments where visibility is compromised. Repetition, repetition, repetition, saves lives. 

Thermal imagers are regularly touted as life-saving tools, and deservedly so. The key to training with a TI is to train regularly and most importantly, train using basic fire fighting skills while keeping in mind the limitations of thermal imaging technology. Successful and safe training can be achieved when firefighters understand the risks involved with the tools being used. The TI is a tool that needs to be with you on every call, but always remember, this tool has limitations, and no tool should ever take the place of the skills you learn in fire fighting training. 

Until next time, train often and stay safe.


Manfred Kihn is a 19-year veteran of the fire service, having served as an ambulance officer, emergency services specialist, firefighter, captain, and fire chief. He has been a member of Bullard’s Emergency Responder team since 2005 and is the company’s fire training specialist for thermal imaging technology. He is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers’ Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor and is a recipient of the Ontario Medal for Firefighters Bravery. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you can e-mail him at manfred_kihn@bullard.com.