Real Time Warnings Prevent Real Accidents

For the past couple of months, we’ve been discussing Vehicle Data Recorders (VDRs), also known as black boxes. This month, let’s talk about real time warnings – like active rollover warnings and audible warnings for unsafe driving.

First, let’s recap points discussed in the previous columns. Through the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 standard, VDRs are required on all new apparatus contracted after Jan. 1. The decision to make it a requirement was one of the most discussed changes in the new revision of the standard. The two major factors in requiring VDRs are that all passenger vehicles must have an Event Data Recorder (EDR) by the model year 2011 and that driver error is the primary reason for fatal apparatus accidents.

Specific requirements for VDRs include the ability to record vehicle speed, acceleration rates, deceleration rates, engine speeds, engine throttle positions, ABS events, seat occupied status, seat belt usage status, master optical warning device switch position, time and date.

At the time the committee made the decision to require VDRs, it did not consider requiring real time visual/audio warnings to the driver when limits are being approached. But this is an option that fire departments should give due consideration. It makes an excellent complement to the VDR.

Real time warning is nothing new to the automotive industry. Audible and visual seat belt usage status warning devices have been in automobiles since the 1970s. Isn’t it amazing that fire apparatus do not require seat/shoulder belt usage warnings? Yet, compartment door open warning devices have been commonplace for years. What’s wrong with this picture?

Seat belt warning systems are now required for all apparatus contracted on and after Jan. 1. Other warnings can complement the black box to further assist drivers in handling fire apparatus. Real time warning is particularly effective for emergency response. Often the adrenalin rush, combined with external distractions, such as radio traffic, startled motorists and lights and sirens can reduce the focus of the driver.

Rollover Warning System

One of the warning devices now appearing in heavy trucks is a rollover warning system. These systems go beyond the popular Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems common on SUVs. ESCs actually impact the braking system of the vehicle.

Rollover warning systems are designed to assist drivers in recognizing when they are approaching unsafe operating limits of their vehicles. The systems monitor the G-forces exerted on the vehicle in all three axis – lateral, axial, and vertical.

Typically, the visual indicator is a bar that lights progressively as G-forces increase. Concurrently, there is a buzzer or tone that gets progressively louder as they rise. All of this information can be recorded on a VDR. One of the more prominent manufacturers of such a device is Stability Dynamics. Having ridden in one of my department’s Crash-Fire-Rescue Vehicles (CFRV) equipped with the Stability Dynamics system, I cannot overemphasize its value. It is real time feedback as opposed to post-incident information.

Another more comprehensive system is one similar to the trademarked The Road Safety SafeForce Driving System. For emergency services, this system has its background in ambulances. However, successful applications are beginning to emerge in fire departments like the Battle Creek (Mich.) Fire Department. According a white paper on its Web site, “The Road Safety SafeForce Driving System encourages drivers to become part of the solution, rather than feeling they are a victim of the process.” That is a very important statement as relates to the intent of the VDR, which is to prevent accidents.

The VDR is not intended to be used as a disciplinary tool against firefighters. This is a very important statement and a key underlying reason it is called a VDR, rather than an EDR. Fire chiefs must understand this on the front end.

SafeForce Driving System

The Road Safety SafeForce Driving System provides an audible warning as the driver approaches an unsafe condition, allowing sufficient time to take corrective action before a crash occurs. If a driver ignores system warnings, an exception report is created so department may take corrective action.

In addition, the system monitors other safety functions such as unsafe backing (a button at the outside rear of the vehicle must be pushed when the vehicle is put in reverse to indicate a spotter is in place), driving without the seat belt fastened, unauthorized entry of the drug box, driving with the emergency brake on, low idle speed with emergency lights on, system tampering, improper vehicle shut-down leading to premature turbo failure and many other possible scenarios determined by the department.

The data is tracked to individual drivers via a key fob. Reports from the data gathered can be generated as frequently as the department requests.

My department does not handle patient transport. It is done through a cooperative agreement among area hospitals and funded by the county. The entire ambulance fleet has been equipped with the system for several years. Feedback from the users varies.

Obviously, there is the “big-brother syndrome” and fear of making a mistake. However, the safety staff is quick to point out that, when a collision occurs, the drivers are always anxious to get a report from the system that will clear them of any unsafe driving suspicions.

Obviously, the system works or they would have discontinued its use. Data is automatically and wirelessly downloaded each time an ambulance gets in close proximity to the fleet maintenance facility.

Some additional benefits of the system include lower maintenance costs, especially longer brake life. Users have noticed a measurable decrease in fuel costs. Most importantly, the change from the “pedal to the metal” mentality to operating “smoothly, but efficiently” has not had a detrimental impact on customer service, i.e. patient care. Paramedics in the back of ambulances especially appreciate the professional driving. Clearly, the system serves as an on-going driver training program.

The Road Safety SafeForce Driving System seems to be most common in private sector ambulances. This indicates there is a positive cost/benefit analysis to the system. The manufacturer claims that customers have said the system pays for itself in eight to 24 months. It is easily retrofitted to existing vehicles.

The key for fire service applications for any of these systems is that they be used as intended and not as a way to “hammer” firefighters. They are intended to encourage, reinforce, document and – in the end – improve driving safety and save the lives of firefighters.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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