‘Big Brother’ VDR Issues Are Numerous

(Part 1 of 2)

In case you haven’t noticed, the era of “big brother” is here. We are being watched almost constantly. Security cameras abound. Walk down the street of any city in U.S., and you’re probably on a half dozen surveillance cameras. Walk into a convenience store. Go through a fast-food drive thru. Pull into a shopping mall parking lot. Use an ATM. Walk into a bank. Visit almost any retail establishment. You get the picture? (Actually, someone else gets the picture.)

VDRs (Vehicle Data Recorders) are somewhat similar. They record what we do as we operate an emergency vehicle. They will be required on all apparatus contracted on and after Jan. 1, 2009. So, exactly what are VDRs? They are very similar to the “black boxes” used on aircraft for decades.

The National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Apparatus struggled with this issue for months before a consensus was developed.

EDRs In Personal Vehicles

Before going into the fire apparatus VDR, a bit of history is in order. Almost all passenger vehicles on the road today have some sort of EDR (Event Data Recorder). The 1901 committee decided to use VDR instead of EDR to capture the intent of the device for fire apparatus. (This will be explained later.)

General Motors, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Suzuki voluntarily equipped all their passenger vehicles in 2005. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued an order in August 2006 that requires all automakers to include EDRs in 2011 and later models. Its ruling standardizes the information EDRs collect and makes retrieving the data easier.

All volunteers who respond to calls in their privately owned vehicles (POVs) should be aware that the EDRs in their personal vehicles must record the following information: change in forward crash speed; maximum change in forward crash speed; time from beginning of crash at which the maximum change in forward crash speed occurs and speed at which vehicle was traveling.

A Lot Of Data Recorded

The EDRs must also record the following: engine throttle position – was the accelerator pressed; brake use – was the brake applied; ignition cycle, crash – number of times the engine had been started prior to the crash; and ignition cycle, download – the number of time the engine had been started prior to downloading the EDR data.

Other data recorded is: driver’s safety belt status; front airbag warning lamp status – on/off; driver frontal airbag warning lamp – on/off; driver frontal airbag deployment – time to deploy for a single-stage airbag or time to the first stage-deployment for multi-stage airbags; right side front passenger frontal air bag deployment and time to deploy; number of crash events; time between crash events if applicable; and whether the EDR completed the recording.

In addition, there are advanced EDRs. The NHTSA states that advanced EDRs must record the following: sideways acceleration; forward or rearward acceleration; engine speed; driver steering input; right front passenger safety belt status; engagement of electronic stability control system; anti-lock brake activity; side airbag deployment time for driver and right front passenger; and seat track positions for both the driver and front passenger. In addition, occupant size and position for drivers and right front passengers may also be recorded.

The Cost Issue

Since fire apparatus are not covered under the NHTSA ruling, this put the NFPA committee in a position to either do nothing or try to develop criteria that was meaningful to the fire service.

The arguments against trying to do something were strong and with valid reasons. Of course there was the cost concern. There was concern that no one had made a product that would meet the proposed requirements. There was concern about the maturity of the technology. There was concern about who owned the data and that the data would be used against a fire department or a firefighter. There was concern about other ways the data could be used. There was concern that apparatus accidents would not be reduced because of technology, i.e. it was a driver training, fire department management issue.

I think it is appropriate to review the counter arguments to these concerns. The cost issue was countered by looking at the cost of the death of a firefighter.

In my department, five years ago, a line of duty death (LODD) of a firefighter with two children under age 18 cost $1.2 million through various death benefit programs. There were no litigation costs. This death was not caused by a vehicle accident so there were no vehicle costs involved. There were no extended hospital costs and funeral costs were absorbed by a local funeral service.

With EDRs becoming commonplace, it was realized the cost was coming down as is the case with most electronic equipment. The committee used the 16 life safety initiatives of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation as strong justification to require EDRs. In particular, the initiatives that stated: “Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment;” and “Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.” Those statements were at the forefront of the thought process.

The concern that no one had made a product that met the requirements was countered by the fact there was really no new technology involved. It was simply a matter of packaging existing technology into a fire service application. Today, the VDR is commercially available. A few of the apparatus manufacturers have developed their own VDRs, and Fire Research Corporation has developed a system that can be used by any manufacturer.

Who Owns The Data?

The concern about VDRs not being “mature” technology quickly vanished as it became very apparent that the technology has been in use for many years. Take seat belt monitoring, for example,. It’s similar to the technology that stops the mower blades of a riding lawn tractor from turning when no one is in the seat. That was a standard feature on my John Deere 112 garden tractor when I purchased it back in 1973. And, the feature still worked when I sold the tractor 15 years later.

Then, there’s the question about who owns the data? There was a lot of anxiety on this issue as some thought the data might belong to the manufacturer; others thought it belonged to no one until a court decision was made; and some thought it belonged to the driver. Actually, the owner of the data is whoever owns the truck. Police, insurers, researchers, manufacturers, and others may gain access to the data with the owner’s permission. Otherwise, a court order is required.

The concern about how the data could be used against a fire department or firefighters was the most interesting discussion. There were two known facts that countered this concern. First, in most apparatus accidents, when another vehicle is involved, the fault lies with the other driver. Second, most vehicles on the road today have VDRs. It seemed logical that fire apparatus should be equally “armed” to counter bogus claims.

As the well-known personal injury trial lawyer Jim Juneau stated in a committee meeting; “The truth shall set you free.”

In next month’s issue, there will be specifics on the fire apparatus VDR and how the information can and should be used.

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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