By John B. Tippett Jr.
Published Sunday, November 4, 2012
| From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Editor's Note: As of Oct. 10, 2012, the federal AFG program funding that supported the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System has not been renewed; however, the IAFC has announced a short-term plan to self-fund, keeping the Near-Miss Reporting System servers up and running through the end of October. The IAFC is currently working with program partners and others to save the cache of invaluable data compiled by responders throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Advances in firefighting technology allow us to perform some remarkable feats on the incident scene. Many of these advances were developed to provide protection from the effects of thermal insult on the body and the toxic byproducts of smoke and other fire gases. The personal protective equipment (PPE) we wear now far exceeds anything we’ve known in protective clothing. Of course, a downside to the improvements in protection is the inhibited sensory performance we experience while operating in such clothing.
But true to form, the fire service has now adopted an additional technology to offset the stunted sensory capability. An ingenious device made its way into our hands from the military after nearly a generation of probing blindly into zero-visibility atmospheres encapsulated in our state-of-the-art PPE ensemble. The device enhanced our visibility, and in its ever-evolving forms, provides us the information to help make better decisions.
This device is, of course, the thermal imaging camera (TIC). PPE and TICs enhance our safety and performance capability so that we can conduct our business confidently at every incident, whether the incident is a complex, infrequently encountered event (high risk/low frequency) or one of our more common incidents (low risk/high frequency).
The TIC has rapidly become an indispensable piece of technology for departments that use it, and it is among the most frequently requested pieces of equipment of the last 10 years. Even though the TIC is a significant technological enhancement, it does have its limitations. Those limitations can be categorized in two general arenas: 1) failing to bring the tool into the structure and 2) not understanding the tool’s limitations.
Two reports from www.firefighternearmiss.com reinforce the value of having a TIC.
“I was a lieutenant on the third-due engine for a confirmed fire in a large, multiple-dwelling. There was heavy fire showing from multiple windows with reports of people trapped on the top floor. We had recently been issued a thermal imaging camera, but forgot to bring it with us.
“My partner and I inadvertently passed through a hole in the wall between apartments while doing a primary search. This caused us to end up in a different apartment than we had initially entered. The floor collapsed underneath us and fire from below cut off our egress. We were able to find and break a window, allowing us to be rescued via a ladder. I had to remove my mask to call for help over the radio and ended up with a severe injury.
“A thermal imaging camera would have made all the difference. We lost situational awareness and did not realize that we had passed through the wall, even though both of us commented that the apartment seemed bigger than it appeared from outside. If we had not found the exterior wall and window, this could have easily ended up being two fatalities.”
“We responded to a structure fire. While en route and when arriving on scene, we were getting reports of people trapped on the upper floors. We arrived on scene and size-up revealed a working fire in a 2½ -story, wood-frame structure. First engine arrived on scene and stretched a 1¾" handline, and a backup line was also deployed with ladders placed to the upper floors.
“An officer and a firefighter went up to the second floor to conduct a primary search. The first door they encountered and searched was a bathroom. When exiting, the officer went to the right into a bedroom, and the firefighter coming out a couple seconds behind went straight into another bedroom. While the officer was conducting a search, he got turned around. The officer found the wall and started looking for an exit, not being able to find a window (one covered by sheet rock, the other a small kitchen window). He continued to try to find a means of egress, then started to become disoriented at which time he began to deplete the cylinder on his SCBA. He declared the mayday and then completely depleted his air cylinder. The officer then took off his helmet and face piece and stayed as low to the floor as possible.
“Hearing the mayday, a firefighter equipped with a thermal imaging camera descended onto the second floor and began a search for the mayday firefighter (automatic mutual-aid FAST team not on scene yet). The firefighter located the missing officer and was going to try to remove him, but the officer became unconscious. The rescue firefighter rolled the officer on his side and, using his SCBA, pulled him to the stairway and down the stairs where he was assisted by other members. The officer came out of the structure unconscious, at which time members started first aid and turned him over to EMS. The officer was transported to the hospital and released later that morning with no injuries.”
Firefighters who fail to know the full capabilities and limitations of their technology are bound to find themselves lost in a zero-visibility atmosphere and low on air.
As the reports bring to light, having a TIC is not only preferred, it makes a difference. The two helmet cam videos included below provide additional visual examples of the chaos that ensues when we are sensory-inhibited and an unexpected occurrence strikes.
Training with your TIC is vital. It is a tool that improves the chances of victim survival and provides an increased layer of safety for crews. However, there is a tendency to become overly reliant on the device. In essence, using a TIC is about enhancing the basics. It is true that using a TIC improves your visibility, but depth perception is affected. And even though the device is a ruggedized device, it still relies on battery power and can fail due to improper maintenance. Use the TIC for what it was designed for: to enhance your operational performance and well-being. The TIC does not give you license to leave the orientation feature of a wall or the safety of a protective hoseline. A poorly maintained TIC will fail at the time it is needed most. So use the technology to enhance your performance—not to put you in jeopardy.
The cost of a TIC has dropped dramatically since the first generation made their way into the fire service nearly 20 years ago. That is great news unless your department isn’t even in a position to buy today’s model at half the cost. Where do you turn if the $5,000–$6,000 is just not in your budget? There are a number of sources for outside funding to get a TIC on your rig.
Community service clubs are frequently looking for projects to enhance the community. Seek out the president of your local Lions, Optimist or Exchange clubs. The local business community is another source of potential funding, whether you seek out the members of the chamber of commerce or speak to your local business leaders individually. There are a variety of grant programs ranging from the familiar FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and Fireman’s Fund Heritage Program to other award programs at the state and local levels.
Technology will continue to be introduced to the fire service as a means to enhance performance and safety. As new technologies make their way from the drawing board to the unit inventory, it is essential that we take full advantage of the advances while being fully cognizant of the shortcomings. In the report excerpts used this month, the message is clear: A TIC left on the rig or back at the station is like not having one at all. Entering today’s higher-heat-release, super-toxic, zero-visibility atmospheres without a TIC should give us pause. In the same sense that technology has mutated the forces of nature to a more violent and deadly environment, we need to take advantage of technology as well to be able to have the outcome go in our favor. The opportunity for a “do over” doesn’t occur on the fireground.
Helmet Cam Captures Firefighter Going Through Floor, Zero Visibility
Helmet Cam Captures Firefighter Hit by Collapsing Ceiling, Zero Visibility
Interior Fire Conditions Viewed Through TIC, Rollover
Interior Fire Conditions Viewed Through TIC, Wind Driven
Search and Rescue Training with TIC
Victim Rescue with TIC
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