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5 other ways firefighters use thermal cameras

Handheld thermal imaging cameras do more than identify the seat of a structure fire; they’ve found a place in many emergency-response scenarios



In 2000, the Los Angeles Times called the thermal imaging camera, “perhaps the best advance in fire equipment in the last 25 years – and the most expensive.”

The use of thermal imaging cameras in the fire service has taken quantum leaps in the past 16 years, especially as both the size of the cameras and their cost have been dramatically reduced. For less than $500, you can get a unit that’s not much bigger than a smartphone.

In addition to the use of thermal imagers increasing because they’ve gotten smaller and less expensive, helmet-mounted TICs have become increasingly popular because they free up the firefighter’s hands for other tasks.

In April 2016, Scott Safety took the hands-free approach to the thermal camera to the next level with its launch of Scott Sight, which places thermal imaging technology right in the SCBA facepiece. Around the same time, SCBA rival MSA rolled out a G1 integrated TIC that’s built into the air gauge and PASS unit.

There are still plenty of uses for handheld TICs for both firefighting and non-firefighting tasks. Here’s a look at five of those tasks.

1. Overhaul

After search and rescue and fire suppression tasks have been completed, the most prevalent use of the TIC is during the overhaul phase. Handheld TICs can be extremely effective during overhaul when it’s not incumbent that the firefighter’s hands are free for other tasks.

The handheld TIC also enables the firefighter to have a greater range of motion – not limited by where their head is directed when wearing a helmet-mounted TIC. Many handheld thermal cameras also offer additional features that their helmet-mounted brethren might not, such as digital temperature displays, multiple image display options, larger viewing screens and in-camera video storage.

Handheld TICs can be very useful in rapidly identifying hot spots and lingering embers and assisting firefighters in pinpointing the exact location of the fire’s origin and the extent of its spread. Such information can help minimize the extent of additional damage that must take place to open walls and ceilings and floors to ensure complete fire extinguishment.

2. Hazmat responses

Handheld TICs can be an extremely valuable tool for firefighters to use in conducting their initial and on-going size-up of a hazardous materials incident.

When a liquid product is on the ground, it is often not readily apparent to the naked eye. A thermal imaging camera enables the firefighter to clearly see the product’s exact location and the extent of its spread because it will have a different temperature reading than the surrounding material.

When firefighters encounter a hazardous material that’s leaking from its original container or vessel, one of the first tactical priorities is to determine how much of the product is still in that container or vessel.

The TIC will usually enable the firefighter to do this because it will show the temperature differential between the product and the vacant space in the container or vessel. The thermal imager can also show if a product is breaking down or acting unstable within the container or vessel by showing any changes in the product’s thermal character.

A hazardous product floating on water can frequently be difficult for firefighters to see. Because it can sense that temperature differential between the product and the water, the TIC can be a useful tool in determining the exact location of the product.

The TIC can also assist the firefighter in assessing the product’s migration, thus eliminating guesswork and allowing for quicker creation of necessary dams and barriers and other defensive tactical control measures.

3. Motor vehicle crashes

When firefighters respond to motor vehicle crashes, especially at night, they can encounter many unseen hazards or problems. A handheld thermal imaging camera can be an effective tool for creating a safer working scene at a MVC by helping firefighters solve three on-scene issues.

First, are there spilled fuels or other hazardous materials present? A quick sweep of the MVC scene with a TIC can quickly identify or rule out such hazards.

Second, if there’s a vehicle with a car seat, no child in sight, and an unconscious adult – where’s the child? The use of a TIC can speed the search for the potentially missing child.

And finally, it can help determine the scope and magnitude of the MVC. That will include how many vehicles are involved and their locations at night or during low-visibility conditions like falling snow or fog.

The use of a handheld TIC by the incident commander or safety officer can be useful in keeping track of personnel on the scene when darkness or other low-visibility situations inhibit their line of sight.

4. Outdoor search and rescue

Increasingly, firefighters are called upon to assist in the ground search for missing adults or children. Ground searches can be both responder intensive and time consuming in nature and there’s frequently a finite window of opportunity to locate the subjects of the search.

Because the thermal camera detects the heat produced by the human body, it enables the searcher using it to see through light foliage, into the shadows in heavily wooded areas and into the limited visibility caused by fog and other weather conditions.

By using several TICs, a more thorough search can be accomplished using less people and resources than a search without TICs.

5. Wildland fires

TICs can be very useful in sizing up the fire, from both the ground and aloft. Firefighters using TICs are better protected from rapidly moving infernos because the TIC can more rapidly and accurately identify hot spots and the progress of the fire.

Such accurate information can help firefighters to avoid being overrun or surprised by a fast-moving fire.

The use of TICs by vehicle operators and their spotters also decreases the likelihood of their vehicle striking firefighters who are obscured by smoke. This is an all to frequent occurrence when fire apparatus is operating around firefighters and results in preventable deaths and injuries.

Handheld thermal cameras can be used in a variety of operations by firefighters to make their work safer and more effective. What are some other uses that you’ve found for TICs in your department?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.