Thermal Imaging Application Overview

Thermal Imaging
All objects have a certain temperature and emit waves of energy called infrared radiation. Hot objects emit more energy than cold objects. A thermal imager translates these energy waves into a viewable image, which shows a “heat picture” of a scene. On the screen of a thermal imager, hotter objects show as white, cooler objects show as black, and objects in between these temperatures are displayed in shades of gray. Because infrared radiation is not blocked by smoke, firefighters can use thermal imagers to see through smoke, enabling them to find victims faster, identify the seat of the fire earlier, and detect structural dangers that could put them at risk.

While the primary advantage of thermal imagers is evident in structure fires, this technology can help at any emergency incident in which normal visibility is reduced.

This image shows extensive fire and heat already well-developed in the ceiling space, as well as in the right side of the building. This helps firefighters deploy resources safely and appropriately.

The thermal imager can give firefighters important information early at an incident during size-up, which can help them develop a better plan for mitigation. At a structure fire, the thermal imager may help identify the location of the fire or the extent of fire involvement prior to firefighters being committed into the structure. At non-fire incidents, thermal imagers can help verify the number of victims at a vehicle collision.

This image shows how a fire can spread behind a wall and race up to the attic. Without a thermal imager, firefighters may not find this fire until it spreads into the attic and breaks out as a raging fire. Finding the fire earlier helps reduce property loss and damage.

Fire Attack
Just as in size-up, thermal imagers provide information to the fire attack crew that they did not previously have due to poor visibility and building construction. Using this information, firefighters can immediately direct water to the seat of the fire and ensure that their hose streams are working effectively. A thermal imager can also help firefighters locate and isolate hidden fires, such as electrical fires behind walls.

A person lost in the woods or ejected from a motor vehicle can be difficult to locate at night. However, this image shows that the person’s body heat is quickly detected by the thermal imager, guiding rescuers promptly to the proper location.

Search and Rescue
Of all the operations in which thermal imaging can improve a firefighter’s efforts, this technology has the most dramatic impact on search and rescue. Without a thermal imager, firefighters search burning buildings by crawling on their hands and knees and groping their way through blinding smoke to find unconscious victims. Recovery rates in these operations are low, since firefighters are forced to rely on physical contact alone to locate victims. Firefighters using thermal imagers can see the scene, which enables them to quickly navigate and identify victims. In addition to allowing firefighters to see through smoke in burning structures, thermal imagers enable first responders to see in the dark to find victims who are lost or in danger. Police departments can also use these devices to search for fugitives.

This image shows the superheated gases (white cloud) being ventilated from a room prior to firefighters making entry. In certain situations, firefighters might actually trace the heated gases back to help them find the source of the fire.

Firefighters can use thermal imagers to identify areas of heat accumulation, possible ventilation points and significant building construction features. This helps ensure proper and effective ventilation that successfully removes smoke and heat from a building. Ventilation reduces the chances of backdraft or flashover, while possibly giving trapped victims a few more valuable seconds to be found. Identification of superheated gases also helps keep firefighters safer.

This image shows several hotspots that remain in the ceiling space after the majority of the fire has been knocked down. These will have to be cooled by firefighters prior to departure. The structural integrity is compromised, yet it can be monitored by firefighters for safety purposes, even when steam and smoke still obscure normal eyesight.

After the fire is out, firefighters overhaul a structure to ensure that there are no hidden fires or smoldering materials that could cause the fire to reignite. When using a thermal imager for overhaul, firefighters methodically scan each room for remaining hot spots. When firefighters find these hot spots quickly and efficiently, they minimize the risk of a rekindle, and they reduce property damage. Structural components can be identified easily with a thermal imager, helping firefighters remain safe while fighting fires in compromised structures.

This image shows how a thermal imager can identify product levels, the relative temperature of the product inside the container, and even the presence of baffles inside the tanker. All of this can be valuable information to a firefighter planning to control and abate a hazmat situation.

Hazardous Materials
Thermal imaging helps fire officials manage hazardous spills and other hazmat incidents more effectively. Firefighters can use thermal imagers to identify sources and movement of contaminants in bodies of water and on the ground. With the aid of the technology, firefighters can also determine product levels in sealed or pressurized containers.