Firefighting Applications

Thermal Imaging Firefighting Applications

Firefighters don’t have to fly blind anymore. Thermal imaging firefighting cameras can assist in finding victims through smoke, see in darkness and locate the seat or center of a fire by seeing the flow of hot gases seeping from it. They can even assist in spotting holes in flooring or other structural weaknesses, warning firefighters before their lives are endangered.


Even after the fire has been extinguished, a thermal imaging survey during overhaul can detect unseen embers and lurking danger. What’s more, the life-saving benefits of thermal imaging aren’t just limited to structure fires. Firefighters and security professionals are finding them invaluable in rapid assessment of motor vehicle accidents, wildland fires, search and rescue, and industrial and petrochemical fires.


It has been proven many times over that firefighters equipped with thermal imagers help save more lives and preserve property. Being able to find trapped victims through dense smoke or darkness is the most obvious application for thermal imaging, but the possible applications are endless. A thermal imager can contribute in a variety of unique ways and become an indispensable firefighting tool.


HAZMAT: Barrier Placement

A contaminant floating on the water’s surface can’t hide with the use of an Infrared Camera. The camera will often assist in revealing the exact location of the source of the contamination. Infrared technology also locates the extent of the contamination, eliminating some of the guesswork allowing for quicker creation of necessary dams and barriers.


HAZMAT: Size Up

A thermal imager gives firefighters extraordinary new capabilities in a HAZMAT situation. When a contaminant is on the ground, it is often not readily apparent to the eye. But with a thermal imager, it may be seen and its location assessed, because it will have a different temperature fingerprint than the surrounding material.


HAZMAT: Volume Assessment

Often the level of hazmat material within a container has to be determined. The thermal imager will usually enable the viewer to do this, as well as show, because of changes in thermal character, if a chemical is breaking down or acting unstable.


Outdoor: Motor Vehicle Accidents

Some of the more complicated hazards and problems on an MVA site can be significantly reduced with a thermal imager.


  • There"s the obvious HAZMAT situation: whether spilled fuel or other materials, the imager helps size the situation.
  • There"s the vehicle with a car seat, no child in sight, and an unconscious adult — again, the thermal imager can speed up the search tremendously, and with much less manpower.
  • Finally, thermal imagers can assist law enforcement in a motor vehicle accident investigation. Skid marks are still detectable long after the accident. While ABS brakes reduce the traditional skid mark to almost nothing, they do leave a thermal signature that the investigator can see to reconstruct the accident.

Outdoor: Search and Rescue

There are increasing numbers of adults and children turning up missing, and finding them is time-consuming and all too often ends in tragedy. A thermal imager detects the heat people give off, and can see through light foliage and into the shadows in heavily wooded areas. It can find people faster, and requires less manpower and resources than traditional methods.


Outdoor: Wildland Fires

Thermal imagers can assist in sizing up the fire, from both the ground and aloft. Firefighters are therefore protected from rapidly moving infernos because the camera can more rapidly and accurately identify hot spots and the progress of the fire. Firefighters are therefore less likely to be overrun or surprised by a fast moving fire, and also less likely to be invisible in the smoke and struck by a fire apparatus, an all too frequent cause of injury and death.


Structural Fires: Attack

The core of a firefighter’s job is to efficiently locate and safely extinguish the fire. A thermal imager can be an invaluable tool when firefighters are in attack mode. Firefighters can quickly identify the seat of the fire, monitor how effective the water stream is, and spot structure defects before they become nasty surprises.


Other benefits include the ability to track the hidden thermal layer in the wall to avoid dangerous flare-ups and monitor all fire personnel.


Structural Fires: Overhaul

Hot spots and lingering embers can be rapidly identified with a thermal imager. This assists firefighters in reducing unnecessary and expensive teardown. Firefighters can also determine the extent of the fire and pinpoint the exact location.


Structural Fires: Search and Rescue

If thermal imaging was used only for Search and Rescue, it would still be worth the investment. Many victims and firefighters are alive today because they were spotted by a thermal imager, which enables firefighters to navigate unfamiliar territory, even see furniture to avoid. Smoke-filled rooms don"t have to be searched slowly by touch. Victims can be spotted in a fraction of the time. Doors, windows, and escape points can all be seen immediately.


Structural Fires: Size Up

Thermal imaging lets firefighters quickly determine the probable seat of the fire, the extent of it, and how to attack it. The on-scene commander can identify the best ventilation sites, determine how and where the fire is most likely to spread, spot likely migration to adjacent structures, and most efficiently position firefighting teams to crush the fire.


Structural Fires: Ventilation

Thermal imaging is a powerful tool for determining where to place horizontal ventilation. Once the size-up step has been completed and the seat of the fire is identified, the thermal imager can aid the firefighter in choosing the best location for ventilation. It can also identify possible dangerous structural beams that might interfere with a safe ventilation cut.



Firefighting: Saving Zach

Indiana firefighters come to a child"s rescue with a thermal imaging camera.

In 2001, it was just over a year since Zachary Sheets received his miracle. The three-year-old and his parents and siblings count their blessings every day because Zachary could have died. But he didn"t. Instead, he was rescued by firefighters after a three-alarm fire tore through his family"s Franklin, Ind. home.


When firefighters arrived on the scene in the usually quiet neighborhood, flames were shooting out the front window and black smoke filled the Sheets house. And two-year-old Zachary was still inside. "I was able to get my two older sons out of the blaze," remembers Zach"s father, Chris Sheets, "but I couldn"t find Zach. Every time I tried to go back in, I couldn"t because of the heat and smoke."


The sound of sirens

The first fire unit arrived on the scene only minutes later. Firefighter Scott Coombs jumped off the truck, sized up the situation and immediately entered the building.

"I knew we had precious seconds because I could see at least 40 percent of the structure was engulfed in flames," Coombs remembers. "I went in, knowing backup was on the way. I was immediately met with thick black smoke and couldn"t see a thing."


Coombs continued his search for the boy utilizing traditional firefighting techniques: hands-and-knees searching and calling. In the meantime, a second unit arrived carrying additional firefighters — and a thermal imaging camera. Firefighter Mark Hash grabbed the camera and entered the burning building. Within seconds of entering, he saw the heat signature of Zach"s body on the camera"s screen. "I could see two firefighters standing in the hallway. Several others were searching the bedrooms," Hash recalls. "Then I saw firefighter Tim Coble standing just to the left of the hallway and at his feet I saw Zach."


Hash recalls being stunned because the boy was supposed to have been in the back bedroom. Hash tapped Coble on the shoulder and pointed to the toddler. Coble scooped up the child and quickly removed him from the building."We all thought the boy was in his room, but he wasn"t. Firefighters had been past him before, but didn"t find him," says Hash.


A lifesaving tool

The Sheets family credits the firefighters and the thermal imaging camera for saving Zach"s life. Had the camera not been there, my son might not be alive today. That camera is something special," Chris says. Zach"s mother Tanetta stresses the need for every fire department to have a thermal imaging camera. "Do whatever it takes to get one — fundraisers, whatever. There"s another child out there who may not be as lucky as Zach someday because his firefighters didn"t have the technology," she says. "If Franklin"s fire department hadn"t had a thermal imager, I fear I would have lost a son."


A bright future

Zach and his family have persevered over the past year. Zach still receives regular medical treatment. Fluid is temporarily injected under his scalp to stretch his skin and help it regrow. There will be many trials as he grows older, but the Sheets family continues to count their blessings and looks forward to a bright future.


"It"s good to see Zach do what a three-year-old is supposed to do," says his mother. "Doctors used to question whether he"d be able to walk or move his fingers enough to hold a pencil. Well, he can do it all now. He even colors on my walls quite well."



Firefighters: Tracking a 5-Alarm Fire

A massive five-alarm fire on Memorial Day at 1:00 a.m. in a large storage-shed area surrounded by five apartment buildings had the potential for substantial personal property damage and loss of life. Fortunately, the Salt Lake County Fire Department"s command vehicle had a thermal imaging camera mounted on a 50-foot telescoping beam. With the camera, the department"s incident commander had a clear view despite thick smoke and darkness.


According to Chief of Operations Scott Collins, the thermal imager saved the day. "We set up a defensive perimeter and used the thermal imager to track the fire"s path by viewing its radiant heat. We knew where the fire was headed and when the wind shifted," he remembers. "This allowed us to better project the fire flow, conduct evacuations and shut the fire down."


More than 150 firefighters, 15 engine companies and five truck companies were involved in the six-hour ordeal to extinguish the fire, which started in one of the apartment complex storage units. The storage facilities are closely surrounded by the five apartment buildings. "The buildings are only two feet away from the storage units so we consider it a great success that we were able to save all the residential structures," Collins reports. 


Firefighters also evacuated more than 400 residents, many of whom were elderly. There were no fatalities.


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