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The Importance of Fire Truck Vehicle Data Recorders

By Chris Daly

A recent incident in my county has demonstrated the importance of installing vehicle data recorders in emergency vehicles. A local resident made the following post on his Facebook page in reference to fire apparatus that were responding to a working house fire:

“Not sure what the emergency in XXXXX is but XXXX Fire Company does not need to come down XXXXX Hill in equipment at Mach 3. Someone is going to get hurt! Please share!”

As social media goes, there was an immediate buzz from both sides of the issue. No matter which side you are on, there are several important lessons to be learned from this incident.

Truth?
First, the truth doesn’t matter. Regardless of the outcome of an internal investigation, the die has been cast. This resident has made a post that suggests fire apparatus were not operated safely while traveling through his neighborhood. Even if an internal investigation reveals that this statement was untrue, it will be very difficult to try and put the genie back in the bottle. The people who read the statement are not likely to read follow-up posts that prove or disprove the allegations. They will turn off their electronic device for the day, believing that firefighters drive irresponsibly. As a police officer, I will tell you: “Welcome to our world.”

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If this complaint turns out to be justified, the incident demonstrates how a single action can taint the reputation of an entire profession through the use of social media. If the emergency vehicle driver had driven in a responsible manner, the complainant would not have had a reason to post his opinion on social media. However, because there was some question in the complainant’s mind regarding the operation of the fire apparatus, he felt obligated to share his opinion with the world. Holding drivers responsible for speeding, failing to come to complete stops, and reckless or unsafe driving will help ensure a culture of safe drivers that will help prevent a similar public relations incident in the future.

Vehicle Data Recorders
This incident also highlights the importance of using vehicle data recorders in fire apparatus. The newest version of NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, requires that all new apparatus be equipped with a vehicle data recorder, commonly referred to as a “black box.” NFPA 1901, Section 4.11 requires that these devices record the following information at least once every second and store the information in a 48-hour loop:

While these devices have been met with some resistance because of issues related to “big brother watching,” I am a firm believer in their use. For those who worry about big brother watching, I ask, “What are you afraid of?” If your department is operating emergency apparatus in a safe and professional manner, there will be no need to worry about the data being recorded by the black box. Instead this data can be used to refute vague allegations such as those made in this example. Was the fire apparatus really driving at “Mach 3?” Or, did the complainant have a false sense of speed and urgency because of his point of observation and the sound of the sirens? In this case, black box data could be used to prove one way or the other if the complaint is justified.

In-Vehicle Cameras
In addition to vehicle data recorders, I am also a proponent of in-vehicle camera systems such as those used by police departments. While black boxes provide speed data, they do not give a point of reference as to where the speed took place. By recording the emergency response with video, it is quite easy to refute or substantiate unsafe driving complaints by simply “playing the tape.” Was the apparatus being driven at an unsafe speed? Did the driver come to a complete stop at a negative right-of-way intersection? No more “he said/she said.” We now have cold, hard proof.

In addition, video recording emergency responses provides a valuable training tool to show drivers how they are operating a vehicle during an emergency. Many drivers fall victim to tunnel vision and a warped sense of reality during the stress of an emergency response. By allowing drivers to watch their actions at a later time in a calm and objective manner, they will be better able to see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their driving abilities. This type of objective data will help ensure a culture of safety and ensure fair and unbiased internal investigations that will allow responsible fire departments to greatly improve their driver training programs and refute unsubstantiated or exaggerated allegations.

CHRIS DALY is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and a full-time police officer who specializes in the reconstruction of serious vehicle crashes and emergency vehicle crashes. He developed the “Drive to Survive” training program (www.drivetosurvive.org), which he has presented to more than 14,000 emergency responders across the country, and lectures nationally on preventing emergency vehicle crashes. Daly has a master’s degree in safety from Johns Hopkins University, is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, is a contributor to Fire Engineering, and has presented at FDIC International for the past 11 years.