Fire Fighting and Rescue Operation

Fire man running up stairs with fire burning around him

Thermal camera for Firefighting 

Hands down, a thermal camera is a firefighter’s best shot at operational efficiency. No doubt, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is paramount. It allows the personnel to breathe even with all the smoke and heat. But when it comes to getting work done, no equipment allows the firefighter to do more at the least amount of time than the thermal imaging camera (TIC). In the process, not only is he able to save more lives and property, the operative has a greater probability to come out of the whole experience unscathed. And to a large degree, whole.

Firefighting is never for the faint of hearts. Right off the bat, firefighters are thrown into just about any emergency response situation imaginable at a moment’s notice. From burning buildings to wildfires to traffic accidents to natural disasters, you name it. Truth be told, firemen are the modern-day heroes we need but oft-times taken for granted.

It’s no accident that when September 11 happened, hundreds of bodies of firefighters were found in the aftermath, dead amongst thousands. It was their final heroic act. Caught in an impossible situation, those firemen did what they could do best: respond to a call of duty. Even to their last breath.

But September 11 did not come to naught. It was the tipping point. True enough, it opened the eyes of authorities on how immensely helpful a thermal camera is in emergency situations.  And not long thereafter, the massive adoption of thermal cameras for fire departments all over America happened.  Check out below why it’s most logical.

Entering the Gates of Hell

Truth be told, you’ll never know when fire and other emergencies happen. But you can be sure that when they do, one of the first responders on the scene is a firefighting team. Trained extensively, firefighters put everything on the line - their lives including - in order to save other people’s lives and salvage property. It’s no accident that the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) suffered the most casualties when the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, happened.

Emergency Workers Killed in the September 11 Attacks

Emergency Services

 Number of Casualties




New York Fire Patrol

Paramedics/Emergency Technician


Private emergency medical services

Police Officers


New York City Police Department (NYPD )

Police Officers


Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department (PAPD)



New York City Fire Department (FDNY)


Smack right into the pit of the massive destruction that’s 9/11, firefighters who have fallen braved it out to the last breath. On that day of terror, 2,977 victims were killed overall. And yet, we know for sure, more could have died had FDNY and other emergency response teams neglected their duties and failed to respond.

The 9/11 scenario is the worst-case scenario a firefighter can be brought into. The first Boeing 767 jet hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan at 8:46 AM. Eighteen minutes later, the other plane took the south tower. What this means is an unprecedented collapse of unheard-of magnitude.

It’s estimated that 15 to 20 million square feet of office space were severely damaged resulting in 1.2 million tons of building material largely pulverized. Normally, building materials are not immediately a hazard to health. But with the intense heat and fire brought by the 180,000 gallons of fuel (from the planes), these materials became pulverized and highly hazardous as dispersion followed. In short, it spread a wide blanket of mayhem over New York City, long hailed the world’s most influential city.

Thus, the trauma and physical harm extend even after the event. Over 91,000 rescue, recovery, and clean-up workers and volunteers poured into Ground Zero in the months that followed after the 9/11 attack, doing mop-up work. But it was the FDNY members who suffered the “most intense degree of exposure” to all the toxic mix of chemicals and dust at the site.

A classic example is the story of Daniel Foley of FDNY.  He was hailed a hero when he found the body of his elder brother Thomas, another firefighter, amongst the 9/11 rubble. But Daniel recently succumbed to pancreatic cancer last February 22, 2020. You might not believe it but there are already 221 firefighters who died from sickness directly related to the September 11 attacks; Danie’s death marks the 221st of these deaths.

A lot has changed after the September 11 attacks. Not only were security protocols tightened all over America, but also measure were taken to look into the plight of rescue workers on a mission. Top of that list is firefighters.

Following the September 11 World Trade Center attacks, the adoption and popularity of thermal imaging cameras skyrocketed. Sympathetic to the faith of hundreds of firefighters that perished in the terrorist attack, the government issued equipment grants like never before. In 2001, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) alone rolled a series of grants which provided as much as $100 million to various U.S. fire agencies.

Thermal Camera: Putting Order into the Madness

It’s no secret firefighting units all over America took some time in adopting thermal imaging cameras as standard equipment in IDLH or Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health situations. In this regard, TICs went the way of SCBAs. To note, the first self-contained breathing apparatus was first used in firefighting in 1920. But it took almost a century before it gained widespread acceptance.

At the onset, SCBA adoption was stymied by the prohibitive cost of the units, as well as a myopic mindset regarding its functionality. In a way, there was resistance to its use. Many firefighters had that thinking that mistaken notion that “to handle the smoke one must put out the fire”. Added to that was a certain machismo which called those who used SCBAs as wimps. Perhaps, this was a reaction to the largely-enormous price attached to SCBA units. As SCBA prices dropped, however, its adoption soared.

Today, several decades after the first SCBA unit was used, its role in firefighting cannot be argued. SCBAs save firefighters’ lives. To note, asphyxia due to smoke and toxic gases inhalation is one of the many causes of firefighter deaths in the line of duty.

The same holds true for thermal imaging cameras: price was an issue in its widespread adoption. Initially used as a technological weapon during the Korean War in the 1950s, the first TICs were developed in order to detect hidden enemy soldiers in the cover of darkness.

It did not take long before firefighters used thermal technology to find people who were trapped in burning houses. Still, there were but a handful used way back then. Not only were the first firefighting TICs heavy by today’s standard, but also, their price could reach as high as $40,000 per unit. Thanks to government grants after 9/11 and its largely decreased price, a thermal camera has become standard equipment in firefighting all over America.


First and foremost, the thermal imaging camera allows you to define the problem at hand. In doing so, it gives you a better grip on the situation. When a firefighter runs into an ILDH scenario, everything is in chaos. While a fire guts a building, it surrounds the area with thick billowing smoke that suppresses one’s ability to navigate the area efficiently. Add falling debris and weakened building materials, and it’s one puzzle labyrinthian puzzle with lives at stake. What that means is without situational awareness, a firefighter is largely held back to effectively administer a timely solution to the problem at hand.

Therefore, without proper vision will take much more time than needed to contain the situation. Worse, he won’t be able to determine with greater certainty the location of the remaining victims left in the area, if any. And if he does finally get through them, it might be too late, endangering his own life in the process. In short, he’s a blind man running into a hit-and-miss situation.

But not if the thermal imaging camera can’t help it. Capable of detecting heat even in pitch darkness and thick smokes, the TIC will guide the firefighter through all the mess, giving him on-the-spot vital information as he moves along. That way, he does not become disoriented. Being in a better position to navigate his way through with greater ease, the firefighter does his job with remarkable efficiency. And goes home in one piece.


Thermal imaging not only provides the fire personnel a better situational grip on the ground but also enhances the strategic thinking of on-scene decision-makers. We’re talking about the Incident Commander or the Ops Chief and the Planning Chief. By showing key data on the incident, they are able to analyze the situation better to come up with a more strategic solution to the problem at hand.

A concrete example is PerfectPrime’s IR0019 Thermal Imaging Camera. Even with its modest price tag, it has a powerful 320 x 240-pixel resolution, allowing you to better assess the situation than the usual product offerings in the market today. More often than not, there’s the 240 x 180-pixel of lesser resolution that oft-times come with a steeper price.

By deploying thermal cameras, decision-makers can identify the seat of the fire faster. And effect a more incisive solution to reach a fire out in less time.

Then there’s the case for a better vantage point. For one, thermal cameras can be mounted on drones to give decision-makers a bird’s eye view of the hot mess showing details that are not otherwise available on the ground.  To note, this is also a spot-on feature for a search-and-rescue operation. Additionally, thermal cameras can be mounted using an aerial ladder. This gives decision-makers additional information to come up with a more workable solution. A high-angle view of elevated structures such as rooftops is bound to uncover a vital clue to the situation at hand.


It’s called a primary search because above and beyond, human lives are the first priority of a firefighter’s fire rescue mission. And every life matters. Sadly, the number of fire casualties every year number no less than 3,000. Here’s a graph from the U.S. Fire Administration:

U.S. Yearly Fire Deaths


Number of Fire Deaths

U.S. Population

Fire Death Rate (per million population)

































Note: The table is based on data from U.S. Fire Administration.

As you can see, primary searches need to be fast and aggressive. Every second count. That’s what makes thermal imaging cameras a gamechanger. It redefines rapid rescue. With a TIC in hand or in-helmet, a firefighter can zero in on a victim faster than a trained eye in fire-ravaged incidents.

A victim will stand out in front of a thermal camera. As his body is cooler than the fire-gutted environment around him, his thermal signature will register an anomaly in the TIC reading. By doing a rapid scan, a firefighting operative can quickly zero in on a victim and provide needed rescue.

Frank L. Brannigan (1918 - 2006), legendary fire protection engineer and founding member of New York’s Fire Bell Club, aptly described the role of thermal cameras saying:

“The thermal imaging camera should not be an afterthought. It should be thought of as an immediate tool that is as necessary as the nozzle. It should be used to determine on the first attack whether the hazard of burning trusses or I-beams is overhead or in the floor.”

Small wonder why Frank has become an inspiration for many stalwarts in the firefighting industry today.


With a thermal camera, the presence of extreme heat becomes apparent even when it has not yet penetrated a wall. A quick scan should be able to betray its location. Additionally, a TIC can effectively identify concealed fires that can cause rekindles. If undetected, extreme heat can cause a fire scent to reignite prompting the fire department to be called back to the scene.

Visual inspection may not be enough to consider a fire out. Even when all signs of fire tell you it’s no longer a threat, smoldering fires may be concealed behind walls or fallen debris. A thermal imaging camera scan from at least 10 to 15 meters in distance should be able to reveal such heat anomalies better. In short, it’s a more reliable way of calling a fire out.

Indeed, work done is more efficient and largely more effective with a TIC. In the process, you salvage more property and put a stop to all the destruction brought by fire. To put things in perspective, fires in 2019 caused the US, $14.82 billion. And that’s even a decrease than the year before.

Yearly Property Loss in the U.S.


Property Loss in Billions of Dollars












Note: Table based on Statista Data. 2001 is the year of the World Trade Center Bombing.


Everyone goes home has been the ultimate goal in the firefighting mission. Many protocols, the SCBA, including, have been instituted to reach that goal. Also, that has been the reason why, a website for safer firefighting, was conceptualized.

Sadly, there has never a year when there are zero deaths among American firefighters. And although there’s been a steady decline over the years, casualties are still a sizable number.

It is noteworthy that the thermal camera plays a central role in ensuring every firefighter goes home safely. By helping the fire operative assess the situation better, he is in a better position to stay away from risky situations. Or if he’s in a risky situation, a TIC should be able to show him a better way to get out of it. Definitely, it is better than when he doesn’t have thermal imaging to back him.

Other Ways Thermal Camera Helps Firefighters

Ever since the first fire volunteer brigade was formed in 1735 in Philadephia, firefighters all over America have been responding to fire emergencies up to today. And the incidence can be overwhelming. Statistics show that a fire department in America responds to a fire incident every 23 seconds. That certainly sounds a lot.

But firefighters also answer medical calls and other emergencies. In fact, since 1980, calls to quell fires have steadily decreased when compared to total calls. Here are other instances when firefighters are called to serve, aside from responding to a burning structure, and thermal cameras lend a hand:

1. Motor Vehicle Crashes

Again, you can have visibility issues when responding to a motor vehicle crash. That’s especially true when the rescue is done at night. That can certainly compromise the situation, especially in a burning vehicle and lives are on the line.

But a portable thermal imaging camera can give the responding firefighter a more definitive scene. For starters, he can identify the bodies of people involved in the crash and get to them before things get complicated. Secondly, he can identify site risks such as spilled fuels and other hazardous materials that are on the scene. In short, he can define the situation better and effect a solution faster.

2. Hazmat Responses

Hazardous materials are a nuisance only when they’re out of their containers such as oil spills or chemical spills. The good news is a thermal camera can easily detect the presence of leaks. That’s because temperatures outside and inside the container are distinct. So chemicals outside of their container stand out like a sore thumb.

Additionally, a thermal scan will enable a firefighter to determine if a container or vessel is vacant or if some of the chemicals inside have leaked. Also, it can show if the chemical is acting unstable or if a product is already breaking down as the behavior of their temperatures reflect.

Moreover, the same goes true for hazardous materials on bodies of water. A TIC can track them down as they will have a distinct temperature compared to the water. Plus, it can show the movement of the product.

3. Wildland Fires

Thermal imaging cameras are essential in sizing up the situation. By fielding them on the ground and aloft, firefighters can determine the hot spots and assess their responses accordingly. Meaning, they can control the situation better.

Then there’s the safety of the fire team. As big as the towering inferno, there’s a danger that firefighters can be overrun unable to see the incoming fire with all the smoke. Again, a TIC prevents this from happening. Also, there’s better coordination. So vehicles on the scene can avoid firefighters who are not visible to the human eye as they’re covered in smoke.

4. Outdoor Search and Rescue

Ground searches can be exhaustive. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. However, thanks to thermal imaging technology, firefighters can zero in on a lost individual faster even in the cover of darkness. And that means fewer people need to be used and lesser time wasted. A helicopter equipped with a TIC can be a speedy way to resolve things.

Indeed, when you talk about operational efficiency on the job. Nothing beats a firefighter with a thermal camera in hand.