Big Brother: 60 Years Later

May 24th, 2010

by Robert Tutterow

In 1949, George Orwell’s infamous book 1984 was published. The novel was based on a totalitarian state where the ruling party had total power over the governed. One of the key characters of that novel was “Big Brother”, the dictator of Oceania. The society described in Orwell’s book is one that is under constant surveillance by the authorities. It is from this infamous book that the phrase “Big Brother is watching you” originated.

Sixty years later an interesting parallel has developed. While our society has not exactly evolved into a totalitarian state with constant surveillance by Big Brother, we have evolved into a society where, to a significant degree, “we” have each other under surveillance. Foremost in the area of monitoring and data capture is the popularity of security cameras. When we drive into the parking lot or walk through the door of a business, there is a good chance that our actions are being captured by video cameras. Traffic monitoring cameras are also very common. Most urban areas now have traffic monitoring cameras mounted at major intersections and along multi-lane traffic arteries.

So what does all of this have to do with fire departments? Well, most all of us recall seeing the intersection collision of two St. Louis Fire Dept. apparatus last October. The collision was captured by a nearby security camera. As of this writing, the YouTube video of this collision had received almost 700,000 views. Combined with all the other media, the accident has probably had over a million views. However, surveillance (or monitoring) goes much further than just video.

Human behavior modification experts rightfully contend that for behavior to be modified, the unintended behavior must be captured. There must be substantiation of the causes of an undesired event. In addition, equipment malfunctions must be documented. This is what led to black boxes for aircraft and now black boxes for other vehicles, including fire trucks. With the most recent revision of NFPA 1901 – Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, all new fire trucks must be equipped with a VDR (Vehicle Data Recorder).

The VDR must capture the information in Table 1 and the data must be stored at the sampling rate in a 48 hour loop.

When the memory capacity is reached, the oldest data must be erased first. All data must be downloadable by the fire department and importable into a data software package.

The memory must be sufficient to record 100 engine hours worth of minute by minute summary data as indicated in Table 2.

The VDR is intended to be a training tool for drivers as well as a management tool for the fire department to manage driving habits. The VDR allows departments the capability to make accurate on-going evaluations of driver behavior in the field. High-risk driving behavior can be identified and the department can develop appropriately targeted corrective actions such as training supplements and modifications to SOPs. The intent is to prevent accidents.

The VDR is not intended to be used as a disciplinary tool.

This is a very important statement and a key underlying reason it is called a VDR rather than an EDR (event data recorder) as required in most other motor vehicles. Fire chiefs must understand this on the front end. A secondary benefit of the VDR is for use in post accident investigation. Naturally, this data could be used against the driver. However, with good training, good driving skills, and adherence to driving policies, the VDR will more than likely “set you free”.

It is also important to add that seat belt monitoring is also required in the new NFPA 1901 standard. Moreover, the information monitored by the seat belt monitoring device is also captured by the VDR. This allows a fire department to monitor seat belt usage and identify non-compliance – hopefully before an accident rather than after a serious injury or death.

Why did the NFPA apparatus Technical Committee decide to make this requirement? In a nutshell, they did it to reduce the number and severity of accidents. Traveling to and from the scene has claimed almost as many firefighters’ lives as the operating on the incident scene. There are a few key points that should be highlighted:

  1. The lack of success by the fire service as a whole to reduce the LODDs (Line Of Duty Deaths).
  2. Most vehicles already have an event recorder and all 2011 and beyond model year vehicles will have one.
  3. NFPA Product standards have proven to make a positive impact on safety.

For example, before the requirement for fully enclosed cabs, an average of 6 firefighters per year died from falling off of apparatus. Since that requirement, the average number is now less than one annually. There is no record of a firefighter falling off, or out of, an apparatus because of seat belt failure!

The popularity of monitoring is continuing to rise. It even goes beyond vehicles. The FIERO (Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization) Fire PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) Symposium held this past March included a presentation about physiological monitoring embedded into PPE to monitor the “operating system” of the human body, i.e. pulse, activity level, breathing rate, upright or prone position. Attached to a lightweight, flame resistant undergarment, the product is already in wear trials in the military and a couple of fire departments. The “platform” for this technology will allow for future firefighter locator systems. As with VDRs, this monitored data is stored and can be retrieved for training purposes. Today’s young rookie firefighters will probably experience the maturation of electronics on the emergency scene when their physiological status and hazard environment will be monitored by an incident management system. The monitoring could possibly occur at a central communications center – away from the chaos of an emergency scene.

Monitoring of activity can be beneficial as long as it is not done with the intent of “Big Brother”. Hate it or love it, it’s here and there is no indication it will go away. In conclusion, I recently noted that Hammacher Schlemmer, the long established unique gift retailer, was offering a product called “The Driving Activity Reporter”.
Their description of the product is as follows:

“A device that monitors a car’s activity and provides a detailed report of places, routes, and speeds traveled. It uses a 16-channel GPS receiver to track the movements of the car to which it is attached (internally or externally, using the device’s built-in magnet for covert purposes), storing locations on its built-in flash memory that holds up to 100 hours of driving activity. Removed from the car, the reporter connects to your computer’s USB port, and the included software allows you to view the time, date, and precise locations visited–even how fast a driver was traveling–using animated digital street maps. The data can also be examined using Google Earth (a free application from the Internet) for precise satellite pictures of locations visited.”

It runs off two AAA batteries and has a list price of $229.95. Do you have a teenage driver or suspect a cheating spouse?

Watch what you do, because someone else probably is!

This entry was posted on Monday, May 24th, 2010 at 9:11 am and is filed under commentary articles. There are One Response to “Big Brother: 60 Years Later” :
admin Says:

please note that FRC offers the Seat Monitor and Data Acquisition System to satisfy the NFPA requirements.

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