Thermal Imaging & The Big One

A morbid truth that we all face when choosing to serve the community as law enforcement officers is the chance that we will be called to a catastrophic event. Most likely it will come without warning or convenience and it will steal innocent life.

What I call The Big One could be a natural disaster such as a tornado, blizzard, flood or earthquake; or a plane may fall from the sky crashing into a neighborhood. Of course we have to always be mindful of the possibility of a terrorist attack.

For the purposes of this article we will focus on the natural disaster. Depending on what we are dealing with, such as a wildfire or tropical storm, we can expect some form of chaos. Power outages, fire outbreaks, loss of communication systems and sadly loss of life are all part of the many things we have to address when responding to a natural disaster. Our rescue or response efforts become even more taxing when these emergencies stretch into the dark.

When the false sense of security lights and electricity are gone, people become anxious and fearful and panic is often the case. Criminals and gangs begin to seize the opportunity to rob, loot and in some cases kill. The 911 system fails, emergency response is delayed and communications are out. Lucky you, your shift has just begun.

Obviously planning and preparation for these events should have already been done. A thermal imager (TI) should be on the list of equipment to assist you in these complex situations. Remember, if your department has a thermal imager and you don't have it with you when The Big One comes, you are limited. A thermal imager is essential gear that needs to be available for boots on the ground and eyes on the scene.

When these disasters kick off, we hope for and usually get a huge emergency response. Thermal imagers can help defeat all those walls of light that emergency vehicles add to the confusion of a big scene. All the lights, fire, smoke or debris can really confuse us. It's like trying to hear a phone at a rock concert. So in light or at night a TI will always help paint a bigger picture for our scene size-up.

Having a TI helps us organize our response from the outside in. Directing responding assists or finding missing people or victims can be greatly advanced when using your TI. It's always good to use it like you are peeling an onion - from the outside in. What I mean by that is to look at things from big to small. Get a picture of the whole scene from the advantage of a TI. Then use it as you move in to deal with the many hazards, rescues and searches that you will be doing.

Having discussed being prepared for natural disasters and working toward integrating thermal imagery into our response we now need to talk about further integration of TI into your crisis preparation and planning for natural and manmade disasters.

First, understand that if you don't have your thermal imager or any other essential equipment with you when The Big One comes, then you might as well not own it. How useful is a thermal imager if it's locked in your supervisor's office or in a locker? We tend to forget the benefit of our gear when it's not readily available while we are responding to an emergency.

Let's use a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina as an example. Using a thermal imager (TI) could have been extremely useful in locating victims or finding safe ways in and out of dangerous zones. Because a thermal imager is not affected by outside elements like lights or night vision, a TI gives us the ability to see through driving rains, blowing debris, or fog. During our initial response to such storms, thermal imagers can help us navigate in and out of dangerous zones. Using a TI with a zoom feature allows us to see down streets for downed trees, power lines or other hazards that may be blocking our way.

Once we have located safe routes, a TI can help us with rescue efforts at all levels. We can identify collapsed structures or structures that are unstable; structural cracks that are forming; and buildings that are smoldering or on fire. When smoke is present during a disaster, there is usually confusion. A TI is able to see through the smoke and help us locate victims.

Other TI uses for identifying victims in a disaster include locating people who are in trees or on rooftops and victims that are trapped or buried in rubble. A TI also helps us plan and navigate through dangerous territory avoiding cables and shards of sharp glass or metal that could injure us. In some extreme cases we may only have the ability to navigate to certain areas by watercraft because of flooding. In dangerous weather conditions, navigating a boat can be very difficult. By placing a TI in the front of the boat and using its powerful eyes, we can navigate safely even in fog or heavy rains.

I encourage you to consider the use of thermal imaging in your prep plans for these types of disasters.