Fire Fighting in Canada

These have been challenging times

June 7, 2021 
By Manfred Kihn

By using a thermal imager, look at all seats, front and back, on downed motorcycles to ensure for accountability against ejected victims. Photo credit: Bullard

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 and some have been hesitant of bringing extra crews together in person, while others have halted all training until further notice.

If your training schedule has been disrupted, let’s use this time as a refresher. I’ve pulled together the most easily forgotten thermal imaging tips. Let’s dive in!

Keep 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 imager tells us what is hot and what is not. But, if we don’t benchmark what “normal” looks like, how do we know what is not comparatively normal? 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. Knowing what to look for that is not normal takes practice.


Look behind you. When entering an unknown structure using a thermal imager, it’s important to also turn and look back, even though you are using a TI. As you move through a structure passing through multiple doors, the landscape looks different behind you. Occasionally, take a look at your potential exit course so you can paint the image in your mind.

Beware of reflections. Modern day kitchens are a potential room full of reflective surfaces. Stainless appliances, granite counters, high gloss wood cabinets, and marble/ceramic floors can all give false impressions. One of the most common rooms for fire can also be offering the most reflective and possibly misleading images. If you think that you are looking at yourself through the lens of a TI, then that is your reflection. Just to confirm, give a little wave. That is you waving at yourself!

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 TI, 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 for 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 liquids on a floor will often appear the same as a hole in the floor to a TI? The imager will identify a difference in the floor area. Increase your safety by combing your visual cues with basic fire fighting tactics to better identify floor stability.

Play hide and seek in the woods. This is a great training activity while social distancing. Do you understand the limits as well as the advantages of grid/distance detection that a TI offers? Having a cooler background while looking for a victim that is generating more heat will be seen for a greater distance. The opposite occurs when you have a warmer background and a victim not generating much heat, who will only be detected at a shorter distance. Learn what you can see or not see and understand the relationship of distance and body heat.

Hazard checks. At MVCs with rollover vehicles, be sure to use a TI to check for any potential hazards, such as downed power lines and fuel spills. Touching undetected hot wires would be a fatal mistake!

Victim check. By using a TI, look at all seats, front and back, including child carrying seats for heat signatures during MVC rollovers or downed motorcycles. That will ensure for accountability against ejected victims.

Keep batteries in top condition. Battery maintenance on your thermal imager 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 TI on every call. There may be some calls where a thermal imager doesn’t seem like a great fit. However, it can provide a benefit in many circumstances. For instance, even when working in confined spaces.

Thermal imagers 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.

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. A member of Bullard’s Emergency Responder team since 2005, he is the company’s fire training specialist for thermal imaging technology. E-mail him at

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