Tactical 360 for the Safety Officer by Instructor John Lightly

Firefighters and Incident Commanders are taught the importance of performing a 360* size-up on each and every emergency response that they respond to.  Whether it is a multi-car pile-up on a major roadway, a residential structure fire, or a simple citizen assist call, crews are trained to look over the situation and gather as much information as they can.  It is considered a basic task in the sequence of fire ground actions.  Sadly, many injuries, near misses, and line of duty deaths have occurred in part because a 360* size-up was not performed.

Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) have been around the fire service in the handheld version since the 1990’s.  Unfortunately, their capabilities have been largely ignored or grossly misunderstood.  Insight Training LLC has been working hard to ensure that accurate data and practical application with regards to TIC’s make their way into standard firefighting procedure.

thermal imaging cameras

TIC’s are now being taught as an integral part of performing a 360* size-up during which a first arriving officer or the Incident Commander is formulating the strategy and tactics that will be taken to mitigate the incident.  This is now known as a tactical 360 and the TIC is a critical component in this scene survey.  If you have not familiarized yourself with this concept, you may learn more at our blog at the following link:

The Tactical 360-Enhancing Fire-ground Strategies and Tactics

We can all agree that training our firefighters to use a situational awareness TIC inside the structure is critical and now we are seeing the benefits of a decision making TIC being used on the exterior as part of the size-up.  We would also agree that the scene size-up is not a one-time action to be checked off the Incident Action Plan (IAP) but rather, it is a dynamic action that must be performed continuously throughout the course of the incident.  What if we were to take that concept of using a TIC for your 360* walkaround and apply it to the position of the Incident Safety Officer (ISO)?

In many cases, the ideal person to keep conducting the 360* surveys is the Incident Safety Officer (ISO) as their primary responsibility is to keep members safe in all areas of the fire ground.  This is not something that can be accomplished from a fixed command post; it is a fluid activity.  The ISO is looking for things such as downed power lines, loss of structural integrity, or unchecked advance of fire that may place crews in danger.  The TIC can assist the ISO in looking for these things!  As shown in the following photos, the live downed power line is not clearly visible in the optical view but through the eyes of the TIC we are able to see the heat being transferred making the line visible. This is not to say that one would use the TIC to check power lines. We consider all power lines as live. However, in this case it clearly provided a life saving benefit by seeing the line before a firefighter stepped on it and could have been injured or killed.

live downed power line

heat being transferred making the power line visible

We know that many LODD’s are caused by stress/overexertion, and quite often a contributing factor is the heat that the firefighters are working in.  An ISO using a TIC can monitor gear saturation levels of firefighters and begin to develop a plan for rotating them out of the superheated environment to get them cooled before the medical event occurs. 

monitor gear saturation levels

The ISO is not the person to determine specific tactics to be or the effectiveness of them.  That is IC’s job.  The safety officer’s responsibility is to evaluate the tactics IC has called for and weigh them against the backdrop of overall safety.  It is mission critical for the ISO to stop or delay tactics that will potentially injure firefighters!  

An urban fire department responded to a two story, Type V residential structure fire in the later evening hours.  It was a cold night with wind speeds ranging from 10-15 mph.  IC called for an aggressive interior attack by the first arriving engine to suppress the fire which appeared to be in the Charlie Delta (CD) corner of the structure.  A good amount of fire was blowing from the two bedroom windows on the first floor with large volumes of smoke pushing from the second floor eaves.  The first arriving truck company was immediately assigned to perform a primary search; this was known to be an occupied house, all doors were locked, and there were no occupants awaiting the fire department’s arrival.  IC performed a 360* size-up and transmitted the same over the radio; but the IC did NOT have a TIC.

Though the 360 had been checked off the IAP, the ISO performed his own immediately upon arrival, utilizing the capabilities of a decision making TIC.  A brief face to face conversation with the IC ensured that both command officers were on the same page and understood the strategy and tactics that were in progress.  Because the IC was in a position to monitor the Alpha Bravo (AB) side of the house, ISO took a position at the CD corner.  This put safety where the highest heat signatures (thermal bridges) had shown on the TIC during his size-up.

highest heat signatures

The first-due engine soon reported that they had “knocked the fire down, Chief” and were opening up the ceiling in the room of origin; searches all proved negative.  The ISO began to notice heat signatures on his TIC in and around the window frame on the C side (as shown in the above photo) and a moment later heat signatures were evident above the window frame in the soffit area.  The ISO compared the TIC findings with the visible smoke that was pushing from these areas and notified IC of the situation.   A secondary hand-line was ordered to be stretched to the rear of the structure in order to handle the overhaul of the exterior soffit.

Firefighters assigned to overhaul this area approached the wood-sided house and prepared to open up the exterior wall as directed by IC.  It was at this moment that the ISO called for an immediate stop to their actions.  They could only see smoke pushing from the cracks in the clapboard siding.  The ISO using his TIC for safety saw high heat signatures.  They were moments away from exposing fire in an exterior wall, on a windy night, and the charged hand-line had not been put in place yet!  Had they proceeded; the potential was high for the fire to rapidly progress in the room of origin where the engine company was operating under the belief that they had controlled the fire.

Normal flow of fireground communication is routed through the IC; however, this is an example of an urgent situation in which the ISO must have the presence of mind to speak directly to the crews involved.  Time is of the essence.  The exterior crews only saw some smoke.  The engine company directly inside were getting frustrated with ISO as from their vantage point “everything is opened up, Chief, it’s clear in here!”  Then they uttered a statement that should send chills down the spines of all firefighters on a scene: “it’s pretty warm but we have no visible fire.  We’re good in here, Chief.”

The TIC showed a different story from the exterior.  Bright yellows expanding from a bright red center.  Whites and light grays escaping from the edges and moving away from the house forcefully, driven by heat and wind.  A spot temperature that read a number significantly lower than actual conditions as shown by the color palette.

spot temperature


Under the direction of the safety officer, the interior crew was advised to open up the sheetrock of the bedroom wall; to their surprise, they immediately reported fire running the wall. As the exterior line was now charged and in place, the outside companies were given the go ahead to begin stripping the clapboards and soffit.  They were reminded by the ISO to avoid using their hand-line unless permission was given due to the close proximity of the engine crew just inside the window.

As the interior wall was opened and the exterior wall was slowly stripped, it was no surprise that the fire behaved like it should.  It grew quickly, aided by the wind.  The TIC showed a quick increase in the size of the fire as well as the heat signatures.  A few moments later the engine company had enough access to the fire to open their line and control the fire.  

This is just one example of a scenario in which it is advantageous for the safety officer to conduct periodic 360’s of the structure.  Having a TIC present for a safety officer who is able to properly understand and apply the information it provides can create a significant increase in the safe operations of a fireground.  

We place Incident Commanders in a fixed location where they have access to all the tools and technologies that will aid them as they manage an emergency scene.  It is time to take this mindset and transfer it to the Incident Safety Officer position.  Let’s provide that officer with a decision making thermal imaging camera so that he can do just that- make sound decisions that will create a safer work environment for our firefighters.

Instructor John Lightly

Insight Training LLC