Technological Advances: A Closer Look at Thermal Imaging

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One of the most precious tools any firefighter possesses in their arsenal is the power of sight. The capacity to perceive and analyze dangerous areas, victims in need of assistance, and the appropriate course of action for a given situation creates a vital layer of security within a highly perilous occupation. Unfortunately, the nature of firefighting can have a direct impact on this valuable device by blocking vision with dust residue, smoke, and other handicaps that make working in dangerous situations more complex.

For decades, firefighters across the globe have sought a way to see through the smoke and soot so that they might more accurately locate victims, discover the seat of fires, and offer assistance in the places it is most needed. Fortunately, the latest technological innovations in thermal imaging over the past two decades have begun to partially restore firefighters' sight. Thermal imaging cameras, commonly known as "TICs," are now appearing within emergency service units as a method of helping firefighters navigate through hazardous situations.

What Can Thermal Imaging Do?

Originally, thermal imaging technology was used by the military, with special operations units within law enforcement acting as one of the first groups to adopt TICs within civilian situations. As the technology of thermal imaging continued to evolve and improve, the firefighting services recognized its pertinence within their field and began to embrace TICs for use in firefighting.

When properly used, a thermal imaging unit can help firefighters in a number of critical and potentially life saving ways. Thermal imaging can allow crews to monitor dangerous conditions more effectively, place members of personnel in sensitive areas to form control lines, and enhance the safety of operations. Firefighters may also utilize thermal imaging to help them navigate through smoke in the search for victims, and the introduction of portable units, longer operating times, and alkaline batteries has helped to make the technology more appropriate to the tasks of a wildland firefighter.

How Do Thermal Imaging Cameras Work?

Thermal imaging cameras work by detecting heat energy emitted within a particular radius. These cameras can sense heat energy through a number of different filters that would obstruct regular vision, including smoke and dust. Thermal imaging can also detect energy that is restricted behind a door or wall, as well as evidence of heat reflected from water or mirrors, though the source of the heat may not be located at these points.

Though they are known as "cameras," it is important to note that the TICs utilized by the fire service only detect variations in heat signatures. In other words, observing objects through a thermal imaging camera wouldn't present the same results as if you were looking at the same object in normal light. In most circumstances, a TIC is unlikely to show clear details, and there can be some alterations in the way that depth is perceived.

The Common Applications Of Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging can be used in a number of different formats to assist firefighters and other members of the emergency services in carrying out their duties. The following options are just some of the most frequently accessed application of TICs.

  • Monitoring the head and flank of a wildfire from the air: Using a thermal imaging unit, the location and progress of a fire can be carefully surveyed and examined from an aerial position, regardless of the light or smoke conditions present. This means that a fire can be monitored in circumstances that would otherwise make accuracy impossible. After sizing up a large-scale fire, thermal imaging allows firefighters to determine where the seat of the fire is, thereby making it easier to properly deploy the correct resources for an efficient counter attack.
  • Detecting dangerous hot spots through darkness, smoke, foliage, and fog: If a firefighter understands how to properly use thermal imaging, they can use their TIC to monitor the movement of fire on the ground, even when direct sight of that fire is obscured. The volume of fire bands and the direction of the blaze can be monitored and tracked, meaning that with practice, firefighters can identify critical areas, and enhance their safety on the job.
  • Search and rescue missions: Thermal imaging can be used to search out trapped victims in a dangerous situation as it allows firefighters to see through the smoke and track the body heat of an injured or unresponsive individual. This can be particularly important in cases when intervention teams are rapidly searching for a potentially wounded individual. In the same vein, TICs can be used to track heat differentials for spotting people in dark areas, which can be particularly useful in searching for missing persons.

The Advantages And Limitations Of Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging devices encompass a number of advantages and limitations just like any other technological advancement available today. For example, though handheld TICs are portable and useful in the sense that they can be shared among various crewmembers, it's worth remembering that handheld units require manual operation, which can slow down rescue missions. Similarly, though a helmet-mounted camera or thermal imaging goggles can be useful in helping firefighters conduct operations hands-free, these devices cannot be easily transferred from one professional to another in emergency situations.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous things any firefighter can do when using a TIC is believe that their vision has been completely restored. Unfortunately, thermal imaging cameras can only offer a partial insight into the smoke-covered world around a firefighter. Though these technological advances can ensure that firefighters are not completely blind in the course of duty, their ability to see will ultimately be restricted by the limitations of the technology, as well as their own environment. Although thermal imaging cameras can penetrate through smoke and other obstructions, they are not x-ray machines, and they do not provide complete clarity of vision.

The best way to optimize the use of thermal imaging is to provide firefighters with training on how to use the equipment they have been given. This training should include information on the difficulties of detecting fires burning in specific areas and the limitations that all TICs suffer from.

Should All Firefighters Have TICs?

It's easy to see that thermal imaging devices can be used to improve a wide variety of firefighting operations, from saving victims in internal structures to improving the effectiveness of teams in the wildland from both the air and ground.

How do you feel about the advent of thermal imaging within the emergency services? Do you believe that all firefighters should be given TIC equipment when it can be put to good use? Let us know what you think. 

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