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Thermal Imaging Cameras for More Effective Firefighting

ESO Staff

Today’s firefighting agency has an invaluable tool in its mission to protect lives and properties: the thermal imaging camera (TIC). A TIC is a device, typically handheld, that can be aimed at a scene to take immediate thermal readings of the area. Any notable differences in temperature – or anomalies – show up as a different color on the display. Many TICs for firefighting are designed to be especially rugged, and offer substantial benefits to firefighters in a range of situations. For example: 

Helping in Search and Rescue: 

Since TICs focus only on thermal differences and abnormalities, they are not affected by smoke, fog, and darkness, and can be an invaluable tool when searching for a missing person. For example, since water is typically cold, a person clinging to debris or branches in a flood in the dark would make an obvious difference in the TIC reading when scanning the area. Similarly, when responding to a car accident, you might be searching the surrounding area for a passenger thrown from a vehicle, a difficult task in darkness, car lights, flares, and smoke. A TIC allows you to scan a large area and find victims who cannot call out or move on their own. 

Finding Victims on the Firefield 

Many TICs are hand-held and easily targeted at a room by a firefighter, helping him or her quickly scan an area and see through smoke-filled rooms to identify victims not easily scene or partially hidden by debris. With body temperatures considerably cooler than the fire around them, their thermal signature shows an anomaly in the reading, creating an outline of their shape on the monitor of the TIC. In worst-case scenarios, a TIC can help locate a downed firefighter who cannot move or respond. Additionally, TICs can assist incident command in offering views from different perspectives; some TICs available today are even mounted to drones to give a helpful aerial perspective of the scene. 

Preventing Reignites 

It’s not uncommon for a fire agency to be called back to the scene of a fire due to a reignite. Even when all signs of a fire point to it being extinguished, there may still be concealed fires smoldering inside of walls. Using a TIC makes it more effective to identify potential concealed fires by scanning for abnormalities in the heat signature of the building. According to FireRescue, you should start by using your TIC to scan from a distance of at least 10 to 15 feet away, so you have a broad perspective of any hidden heat conditions that may cause a fire to reignite. Be sure to keep in mind ordinary heat sources that might be in the structure and cause abnormalities in the TIC reading, like a fuse box or appliance, active heat ducts inside the wall, or outside sunlight affecting warming an area. 

Identifying Hidden Hot Spots 

Similarly, a TIC can help firefighters on the scene identify concealed hot spots within walls. The obvious signs of a hidden fire – blistering paint, smoke emitting from a wall, crackling sounds from combustion – may not always be present. A TIC allows you to scan larger areas and identify any differences in temperature emanating from behind a closed wall. Again, it’s important to leverage any pre-inspection data you may have to take into account what common objects – like fuse boxes or other heat-emitting appliances – that might be inside the wall and causing the abnormality, rather than a hot spot. 

Supporting Local Law Enforcement 

If you have a high-quality and rugged TIC, you may get a call from your local law enforcement agencies to borrow it at times. For example, a TIC is especially helpful in a search for a fugitive who may be trying to conceal himself in low-visibility areas. Law enforcement agencies typically utilize night vision devices more commonly than TICs; however, while night vision technology enhances imagery in very low light, it cannot detect thermal signatures hidden under debris or camouflage. For this reason, TICs are often a more effective tool in a wide range of police situations, from fugitive pursuit, hazmat response, search and rescue, maritime operations, and scene containment. TICs have even been used to search vehicles and identify hidden compartments full or contraband or evidence. 

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