Enhanced Search Methodology

The use of thermal imaging cameras has enhanced the firefighter’s overall effectiveness particularly in the area of searching for victims or downed firefighters. In the late 90’s several large and well-known fire departments were invited to participate in a study. They were given two identical search scenarios: one conducted without a TIC and one conducted with a TIC. The results were staggering. Without the use of a TIC the search crews missed the victims 60% of the time whereas they found the victim with the TIC while searching 99% of the time. In addition to this the total search time was greatly reduced.

Our enhanced ability to conduct a search through the use of a TIC is an overall improvement but before we move forward into that we must discuss the dangers of over reliance on the use of a TIC while conducting a search.

Speed: As a well-trained thermal imaging camera user, we often have the tendency to move faster through a building. There are several reasons this can be hazardous:

First we must remember that the rest of our crew doesn’t have the luxury of seeing as clearly as the firefighter carrying the TIC. Therefore, if the crew leader is out in front (which I don’t recommend) and leads too quickly their crew may become disoriented or lost especially if the crew leader isn’t following a hose line, a search rope, or following a specific search pattern (right hand wall search etc.). The crew leader should scan the environment, communicate to their crew vital information and their directions and then move forward. Each movement should be a choreographed set of steps so that our crew is aware that the crew leader will scan, communicate, move, check crew integrity, reassess, and repeat the process.

Finding a victim in a fire environment with a TIC: one of the problems with searching for a victim in a fire environment is the way that we were trained. Many of us have been trained to search for victims or firefighters in a fake smoke environment or a dark room. This type of training is similar to an NFPA 1403 live burn; it’s valuable and informative but doesn’t truly expose the firefighter to the actual conditions in today’s fire environment.


enhanced search methodology

(Photo#2 Courtesy Insight Training LLC-notice the difference in the appearance of the firefighter in this image. The firefighter almost blends in with the background due to the PPE being heated to the same temperature as the background except for the SCBA stands out due to the cold compressed air.

The issue arises when we begin to search for the victim in the real fire environment. When under stress we always revert to our base level of training therefore if we are looking for a victim our last image in our minds is one of person that will show up as white in color on the TIC. This is because many of us were trained to search for victims when the victim was the hottest thing in the room. But now, we are in superheated environment looking for a 98.6 degree individual. Are you beginning to see the problem?

Now in the superheated fire environment the victim will most likely not appear as white but as black. The victim becomes one of the coldest objects in the room. This is why learning the specific color palettes that are mode dependent to your TIC of choice is essential. If a firefighter knows that the color scale is from cold to hot based upon this progression: black, gray, white, yellow, orange, red, and dark red then they will know that their perspective will be based on the temperature mode.

A victim can be hard to spot based on the focus and temperature mode of the TIC. The Crew leader should consider scanning high, medium, and low heights and letting the TIC adjust.

For example, if a crew is searching a 12×12 bedroom and the crew leader is directing their search with a TIC from the door way while staying oriented; the crew leader should scan the room high prior to their entry to check for thermal threat. The crew leader checks for superheated temperatures, signs of structural failure (such as exposed & deformed trusses). The crew leader then scans again at medium height gaining valuable information such as egress points, room & furniture layout, and possible victim locations.  The crew leader can then give the go signal for the search to begin.

The crew leader then scans at low heights taking time to allow the TIC to adjust to the lower temperatures at the floor. This allows the camera to switch to a higher sense mode (a lower temperature range) which will show more details. Most Thermal Imagers take up to two seconds to adjust thus our scans should be slower while our searching efforts should be quick. The Crew Leader will also be looking for thermal cues on the floor such as signs of fire beneath their crew, radiative feedback on the flooring that may cause thermal insult to the crew.

A well trained crew leader will know the resolution of the TIC which also dictates the effective range of the TIC. This will cause a crew leader to stay within the optimal range to be truly effective (most often is between 7-20′). For example, if the area that is to be searched is outside of the optimal effective range of the TIC; the crew leader directs the search within the optimal effective range, picks a new point of orientation (and locates a secondary means of egress) and then directs the search within that next effective optimal range. This may be seen as meticulous but if we are searching for a victim our efforts should be almost surgically precise.

Understanding the importance of a resolution success chart could be the difference between making a save and missing one. When determining the effective resolution of a Thermal Imager it was based on the ability of the end user to identify a small child’s hand from a preset distance. This is important to note as when searching for victims we may only see one small part of their silhouette outlined in the thermal imager.