Apparatus & Equipment

The Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) and the Fire Service

Versatile Use of the TIC and its Benefits to Daily Operations

The Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) and the Fire Service

By AB Turenne

It was early in my fire service career when I was first introduced to the thermal imaging camera (TIC). Unfortunately, it was during one of the most tragic fires in New England fire service history. Being fresh to it all, I was assiduously hinged to the radio and news reports (the advances and luxuries of social media and Google were not around yet) while the tragic events of the Worcester Cold Storage Fire unfolded on that cold Friday night in December of 1999. To this day, I can still see the image of the mutual aid TIC that had arrived well into the incident. It seemed to be more of a futuristic video camera than a tool of the trade!

Fast forward to 2016. With the 17th anniversary of the Worcester Cold Storage Fire closing in, I am completely amazed how far thermal imaging technology has come. Cost, accessibility, purpose/use, and functional options have all changed for the better, and TICs are now found on the majority of career and volunteer apparatus.

In this this four-part series, we will look at the versatility of the TIC and discuss its uses in the following situations:

1. Scene size-up and the company officer

2. Interior firefighting

3. Implementation on the hazardous materials incident scene

4. TIC use at motor vehicle collisions: Finding the unknowns

Scene Size-Up and the Company Officer

The most modern infrared technology of TICs is typically in the hands of company officers. This allows for a more accurate understanding of what is presenting when the initial exterior scene size-up is conducted by the first-arriving company officer, incident commander (IC), and even the incident safety officer (ISO). Thus the information provided by the TIC is conducive to the strategies and tactics officers put into place on the fireground, thereby making the outcome more favorable for all involved.

TICs provide officers the opportunity and capability to create a more trustworthy impression of what exactly is taking place within a structure, whether commercial or residential, when arriving on scene at a working fire. Through the correct use of TICs, firefighters can detect the specific heat signatures that denote the presence of a fire, viable victim, or other related dangers and hazards that typically cannot be seen with the naked eye or in situations where visibility is limited or low because of the outside environment (nighttime or smoke).

Whether you are establishing command or gathering as much information while your crew stretches a line to the structure, the initial company officer on scene must make use of his or her education and experience. The use of a TIC in conjunction with your understanding and comprehension of the conditions presented will set the tone for the next few minutes, and may possibly save the life of a victim or your crew and even preserve the remainder of the structure.

Have the TIC in hand and get your feet moving for a 360° tour of the structure. Using the TIC, perform a vigorous surveillance of any obvious indicators of smoke, fire, or other obvious hazards. Look for clear signs of victims hanging from above-grade windows or through ground-level windows on the floor. Check the structure for building specific construction types that could point to known avenues of fire spread, void spaces, or other dangers.

When used correctly, effectively, and efficiently, the TIC can be used in a three-part scan of the structure that will help to display the obvious indicators I have already expressed. The three-part scan should be conducted in a timely manner, but at a rate sufficient enough to capitalize on the functions and uses of this piece of equipment. When teaching TIC use, I often compare the three-part scan to using a four-gas Meter in the sense that you need to meter above you, at your level, and below you, and you must give sufficient time for the meter to catch up to the area it is surveying. As the company officer performing the 360° tour of the structure, you should use the metering method by scanning at a high level, medium level, and low level to view and find the most indicators while you are developing a chain of actions to better mitigate the situation at hand.

Using the TIC to scan at higher levels (roof lines and elevated floors) can help to identify:

  • Exact height level of the attic space
  • Makeup of roof rafters
  • Heat extension
  • Rates of accumulated temperature(s)

TIC use during the 360° can also help identify:

  • Viable victims
  • Thermal layering of combustible gases
  • Fire spread (or location of the fire)
  • Added access/egress (when exterior visibility is low)

Low scanning can also be of great value when the fire is below grade, windows are low enough to look through from the ground level, and when you have the ability to quickly scan into the opening of a forced or unsecured doorway. Proper TIC use when scanning low can help you identify some of the more beneficial and instant indicators, such as:

  • Viable victims
  • Integrity of floor(s)
  • Thermal layering of combustible gases
  • Fire spread (or location of the fire)
  • Fire load
  • Layout of structure
  • Location of stairwells
  • Height, size, and dimensions of below-grade rooms/voids

An added quick tip that was offered to me through my continued education in the fire service was to not only use my past education, experience, and equipment, but also to use your surroundings to your fullest advantage. For example, if you are unsure of the readings you had when scanning a specific area of the exterior of a structure in question, use the surrounding structures to see if there are vast differences between them and what your TIC reveals. If they don’t match up, there is a greater chance that your instincts were right and that you could have potentially benefited from the use of the TIC while performing your 360° tour.

One added benefit of the TIC for the initial company officer is that it can be used for the duration of the incident by the operating ISO as conditions change as the strategies and tactics change. Although this piece of equipment can be of great use and value when conducting a 360° tour of the structure, one must also recognize that the use of a TIC is not foolproof and education and experience must come into play as well. A misunderstanding of what you discern from the view of a TIC could have a detrimental outcome to your operations.

In the next and upcoming part to this Web series on TIC use and its benefits on the fireground, we will transition from the exterior 360° to the compound uses of the TIC while operating on the interior of a structure when it comes to search, fire suppression, and overhaul.

AB TurenneAB Turenne is an 18-year veteran of the fire service in Eastern Connecticut and is currently employed as a Firefighter/EMT-B with the Electric Boat Fire Department in the Submarine Capital of the World in Groton, Connecticut. He is a Certified Level II Fire Service Instructor and recent graduate from the Masters of Public Administration program at Anna Maria College, and is a frequent contributor the Fire Engineering Training Community.