If your fire department spends good money for good equipment and you don’t know how to use it properly, shame on you. That’s the message Charlotte, N.C., Fire Department Capt. Andy Starnes conveyed to Firehouse Expo attendees this year.
Starnes taught a class called “Tactical TIC Use,” in Baltimore. The class focused on how to evaluate the fireground from three perspectives: tactically, thermally and three dimensionally.
“If your department has the best stuff and you’re not using it, you’re just a well-dressed civilian,” Starnes said.
Starnes said most departments are very good at teaching firefighters how to force doors and stretch hoselines, but they’re not quite as good at teaching tactical lessons, especially when it comes to technological items like thermal imaging cameras, often referred to as TICs.
Technology should not, however, replace the basics like how to a proper interior search and rescue operation, he said.
“We should not use technology as a crutch,” Starnes said, emphasizing that any technology can fail and firefighters need to know how to do the basics not only to save victims, but themselves from dangerous situations.
Starnes said TICs are one of those tools that has enhanced firefighting significantly, but they must be used properly and those who use them need proper training to know how to interpret images properly and make the right decisions based on the information provided.
He said firefighters were successful at search and rescues of victims about 60 percent of the time before the introduction of TICs in the fire service.
“Now, with TICs, we’re successful 99 percent of the time,” Starnes said. “Don’t be part of that one percent.”
Before fire departments purchase TICs, they need to consider resolution, Starnes said. Higher resolution costs more, but it’s worth every penny, he said noting that the hand of a 5-year-old girl, like his daughter, is not very big and can be easily missed if the camera doesn’t have sufficient resolution.
“If it doesn’t have enough resolution, I’m going to toss it across the room because it won’t do what I need it to do,” he said.
Other considerations include the need for cameras to be “intrinsically safe” so it won’t cause problems during deployment.
“You wouldn’t take a lighter to go check on a gas leak,” Starnes said, drawing a parallel with a TIC that’s not safe. Additionally, TICs that are not intrinsically safe means they are not sealed and can absorb everything at fire scene from smoke to insulation and soot, all which will affect the TICs’ performance in the future.
Along that same line, Starnes said it’s important to keep the camera lens clean.
“You wipe off your visor with your hand when it gets dirty, so why not wipe your fingers across the lens of the camera at the same time,” Starnes said, adding that a dirty lens not only impedes visibility, it can significantly affect the temperature reading as well, as much as 200 degrees, or more, less than reality.
While that might not seem like much, Starnes presented some numbers indicating at what temperatures sometimes catastrophic events can happen.
Carpet can combust at 300 degrees, he said, adding that human skin is destroyed at 160 degrees and PPE chars at 572 degrees.
Rollover occurs at 500 to 700 degrees and a backdraft can happen at 900 to 1,000 degrees, Starnes said, pointing out that accuracy with temperature readings are important to keeping firefighters safe.
“You need to know what’ going on around you,” Starnes said, adding that it is important to not only know what’s going on in front of the advancing crew, but to keep an eye out for what’s going on behind the crew.
“Do arsonists start fires in only one spot,” Starnes said, making the point that 360 degree awareness is critically important when using TICs.
Starnes also pointed out that firefighters shouldn’t get “tunnel vision” when using a TIC and focusing on just what is happening on the narrow screen of what’s happening in front of them.
It’s also important to search quickly at fire scenes while scanning slowly with the TIC to allow the camera’s technology to catch up with the movement of the camera and read the surroundings accurately.
He said those who scan too quickly risk missing small hot spots that can haunt firefighters later with rekindles.
“You don’t want to be lying in bed at 2 a.m. when the pager goes beep, beep, beep, sounding an alarm to respond back to the fire scene for a rekindle,” he said.
Starnes also described the issues cameras have with reflectivity. Mirrors, windows, shower doors and even curtains can reflect back images and masks temperatures and anything behind them.
“If you comes up on something smooth and shiny, like a shower door, check behind it as you might miss something if you don’t,” Starnes said.
Starnes said it can take hours and hours to learn everything about TICs, from learning how to read color pallets, to thermal layers and reading images. He encouraged those who attended the class to learn all they can about their particular cameras in their stations and use them as often as necessary.
Those who are proficient at using TICs can pinpoint fire locations just by thermal signatures and reading the images the camera provides, often not seen with just the naked eye or just by reading smoke.
He also advocated not forgetting the basics of firefighting, like how to do a right-hand search and to cool the fire as crews advance, not relying solely on the information provided by the TIC.
“A thermal imaging camera just provides more information for you to make better decisions,” Starnes said. “That’s all it is.”