Safety Technology: Smile, You’re on Camera!

It Was Only a Matter of Time

Cameras in vehicles are now so prevalent they shouldn’t attract notice much less interest.

The combination of digital technology and portability now means that any activity can be recorded, including fire rig operations.

Firefighters in Baltimore aren’t happy about that.

Several years ago the department installed cameras in the majority of vehicles and began viewing the imagery.

The systems record eight seconds before and four seconds after a sudden move or turn by the vehicle.

Those recordings show some questionable safety behavior including a disinclination to wear seat belts.

The Baltimore Fire Department has begun to discipline members who repeatedly fail to do so.

Oddly, the IAFF local union finds itself effectively defending unsafe practices.

Rick Hoffman, the local president told a Fox affiliate reporter, “Every second counts when responding to an emergency.”

We’ve Heard That Before

That very statement or a close variation thereof, was made fifty years ago when self contained breathing apparatus was a new equipment addition.

Firefighters would habitually do the “low crawl” hacking, coughing and gagging because, as they say, seconds count.

After all, who has time to put on breathing apparatus?

Ditto on failing to drop a supply line on the way in:  “seconds count.”

Ditto on not throwing ground ladders routinely: “seconds count.”

Also ditto on failing to have the engine pull past to leave room for the truck: “seconds count.”

These were all lame excuses in defense of unsafe, sloppy and usually lazy behavior.

They still are.

Hello, Helmet Cams

While our Baltimore friends kvetch about buckling up, the “great frontier” is the helmet cam which now routinely shows the up-front view of operations.

These devices capture every aspect of firefighter behavior as well as what tasks are completed (or not) and in what sequence.

The effect of helmet cams, all cameras really, is to make operations safer by allowing for review and study.

Interior firefighting used to be effectively invisible, those days are over.

A time-stamped digital recording is a potent and undeniable fact.

But How to Use the Info?

Given the extreme risk inherent in fire/rescue operations, including the response phase, they should be routinely recorded for examination and review.

The primary purpose of the visual evidence should be to learn and to determine areas for additional training or to modify procedures.

At some point, however, egregious failure to adhere to safety policies has to be called out.

Baltimore seems to have adopted a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” rule.

The third time you fail to wear your seatbelt you get a five-day suspension.

(How mean is that?)

Unfortunately, the union leadership has apparently seen fit to defend the indefensible rather than tell their thick-headed members to get in the game.

Where safety is concerned the department and the union should be perfectly aligned or nearly so and at some point the department has to act on the information they have.


These cameras are also going to document the absolute absurdity of firefighters routinely working a 36 or 48 hour (or longer) shift schedule, because they will provide incontrovertible evidence of vehicle accidents and degraded operations directly tied to fatigue.

It will be subpoenaed evidence in court used by plaintiff’s lawyers and insurance companies to make their case of gross negligence.

The best will be when a firefighter or paramedic or their surviving spouse sues a department on a 48/96 shift after a serious or fatal incident tied to fatigue.

It will be very interesting to watch this discussion unfold as now fire chiefs, administrators and elected officials will be faced with direct evidence of their weak will and poor decision-making where public safety is concerned. 

Perhaps their view of our digital universe will change when they are looking in the mirror.

When it suits us we love to hoot and holler about the dangers of the job and the need for only the best and fittest while we conveniently ignore the price of fatigue caused by absurd scheduling.

Which brain surgeon would you allow in your child’s head?

The one in his eighth hour of surgery or 48th?

Our hypocrisy is astonishing.









1 Comment

  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    Your last lines are a reminder that there are still a lot of bad practices in hospitals in terms of residents being forced to work overly-long shifts. Alarming.
    Also, with regard to “no time to lose,” this issue falls in the same category as the admonition from airlines to put one’s own oxygen mask on before helping a fellow passenger (child or other). While it does feel counter-intuitive, it is the best practice.

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