Arguably, the Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) is one of the greatest technological assets to the fire service when it comes to structural firefighting, search, rescue, and fire dynamics. This multi-faceted tool has also been adopted by law enforcement officers, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and hazardous materials teams across the country and the world to better equip their responders and to give them a strategic and tactical advantage in many non-fire situations as well.
Employed as a Firefighter / EMT for an industrial-based fire department, I was introduced to TIC use on hazardous materials responses through continued training and have learned several unique and useful applications of this technology. In this article, I will share three (3) situations where the TIC can prove very useful when assessing and stabilizing hazardous materials incidents
1. Shipping and Storage Containers: Contents and Quantity:
When arriving on scene of a leaking container (e.g. - a fuel saddle tank on a vehicle or a 55 gallon drum in a warehouse), much of the guessing game can be eliminated for us if we know the maximum amount of the product that could be involved. By utilizing the TIC, responders can better determine how much product is in a container, because the contents often have a different temperature from the container itself and the ambient environment. To best demonstrate this use in a controlled training environment, simply utilize a propane cylinder from the gas grill at your firehouse or snag the can of cola out of the hands of the new guy and view it through the TIC. The readings displayed should depict the level of product in the container. We know that there can be no more than 12 fluid ounces in a 12 ounce can of soda, and we know what is in the container. Using the TIC will determine just how much “product” is left in the container.
2. Chemical Reactions: Mixed Products and the Reaction Produced:
Scenario: Your agency responds to the local recycling facility or manufacturing plant for the report of an odor emitting from a bulging drum. The drum itself has been used for small amounts of waste. Your initial assessment is that there has been some type of chemical reaction that has taken place due to the mixing of various products.
With the TIC in hand, you can determine if there is an actual chemical reaction taking place within the container and gain a better understanding as to the rate at which the reaction may be generating heat. To best demonstrate this in a controlled training environment, place an empty sand pail or paint bucket on a table or the floor in the apparatus bay and fill it with approximately one (1) cup of kitchen baking soda. Next, create a chemical reaction by pouring roughly four (4) ounces of white vinegar into the pail or bucket. Aim the TIC at the pail or bucket and you will observe a change in temperatures as the chemical reaction takes place.
3. Waterways Impacted: Spills and Leaks in Bodies of Water:
With the hot summer now upon us, I’ll use a pond as an example for this last use of the TIC. A motorboat leaked an unknown amount of oil in the water after having motor malfunctions. The operator calls the local fire department to respond. The sun is going down and visibility is now becoming limited. How can you better determine the extent and impact of the spill? Looking at the surface of the body of water through the TIC, you will see the footprint left behind by the oil spill by observing different heat signatures on the TIC display. This “footprint” will help show the size of the area that needs to be contained and/or cleaned.
To better prepare or practice for this use, use a small plastic kiddie pool on the apparatus floor and fill it half way with water. Add eight (8) ounces of common vegetable oil. Turn off the lights in the apparatus bay and use the TIC to see the difference in temperatures from the water and oil to better determine how big the actual spill is.
The TIC has proven its usefulness time and time again for first responders when operating at structure fires. Introducing TIC use at hazardous materials incidents provides a tactical advantage that can help reduce some of the guessing games we are faced with when confronting the unknowns we often encounter at these incidents.
Special thanks to Groton Firefighters Local 1964 for providing the photos used to illustrate the article.