Training Days: Thermal Imaging Cameras

Article and photos by Tom Kiurski

As I have mentioned a number of times in this column, I hope you all make it to the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) on a regular basis. The information there is incredible and ideas for training are everywhere. This Training Days article is based on a class that I took while at FDIC, and has to do with understanding Thermal Imagining Cameras (TICs) and their technology.

The FDIC class was in the back of my mind when things started coming together. I was contacted by a nursing home that had suffered a fire at a home on their property that was used for a storage building. The home was going to be torn down to make way for a newer building on site. I took a look at the building; it had heavy damage in the middle (kitchen) area and moderate damage around that area. By separating the front of the house from the back family room, two separate scenarios could take place in different conditions. The TIC class at FDIC had a separate “classroom” with a burn barrel, which enabled familiarization with the TICs. The front could be used at a practical application exercise, complete with living room, bathroom, and bedrooms.
Make sure you research thermal imaging camera technology and your specific type or types of TICs. You will inevitably questions, so being prepared in advance just makes good sense. 

The arrangements were made in advance and the house was modified to meet our needs. This was done with a fire crew in one afternoon with supplies that I had purchased in the morning. The back room was equipped with a burn barrel on cinder blocks, which would be the host of a small fire when the time was right. The crew being trained reported to the back of the house in full gear. I told them that they could use their SCBA at any time during the session, since we would only use our SCBA for about 10 minutes in the front of the house.


(1) The back family room in this house made for a great classroom to present the basics of the TIC.


(2) The front of the house was blocked off from the back, where a smoke machine and a few hot barrels were added.

(3) Each firefighter was escorted by an instructor, to give them time to look at and interpret images through their TIC.

(4) A look in the bathroom through the TIC…if they found the door and opened it.

We entered and each firefighter was given a TIC to hold. We reviewed the history of the technology, battery replacement, and image interpretation. I focused on a water bottle at room temperature while I placed an ice cold water bottle next to it, demonstrating the heat contrast and shading the bottles differently in the display screen. A window pane was placed in front of me, reflecting an image back to the firefighters of themselves, acting as a nice visual of how the technology cannot “see” through the window like we can. We lit a small straw fire in the barrel and saw the barrel turn white and saw some of the heat turn the ceiling area white. A water fire extinguisher sprayed a stream across the ceiling above the barrel, giving a dark color to the screen. A mirror was placed away from the barrel, but when the TIC focused on the mirror, heat was reflected to the screen.
This practical hands-on class was designed to give all firefighters some good time looking at a TIC screen in a great classroom that was designed for just such a drill. We outlined how a TIC can be used to lead or direct a search. We also discussed the limited angle of vision of the TIC and the shuttering they go through as heat changes. A good shoulder-to-shoulder scan of a room, including all four walls, is a great starting point when you are searching any area. Make note of references such as doors and furniture and keep using safe search tactics that we have worked on since the fire academy days--TICs may malfunction, batteries may die, or the camera may break or be lost.
As we left the back room, we went outside and around to the front of the house. The firefighters were told that they would be “one-on-one” with an instructor with the goal of giving them plenty of time to see an actual house under heat and low visibility conditions through the screen of a TIC. On air, a firefighter entered with an instructor, both TIC-equipped, and started doing a shoulder-to-shoulder search of the front room, telling us what they saw: The door they entered; the heated outline of the smoke machine, which was apparent; windows; the burn barrel and heat above the barrel on the ceiling and wall (which were obvious); the furniture and a victim, both quite obvious.
After finding the hallway, we moved down it, noting doors of closets (outward swinging) and bedrooms/bathrooms (inward swinging). Another burn barrel was placed in a back bedroom and the heat given off was easy to spot from the far end of the hallway. Furniture, bathroom tubs and sinks, and bedroom closets were all quite easy to identify using the TICs. 

It’s good to put TICs in the hands of each firefighter during a training session. In many communities, TICs are mainly used by officers, giving newer members little camera time. The cooperation of the nursing home was greatly appreciated. As a return favor, we provided their staff with fire extinguisher training classes, which we had stopped doing because of budget shortfalls. This Training Day benefitted both agencies, which is an ideal situation.


Tom Kiurski is training coordinator, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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