Event Data Recorders - The "Black Box" for Safer Response

March 22, 2007
Black boxes are just one of many components in the overall driver education and training process.

This column is a component of VFIS' "Operation Safe Arrival" initiative, aimed at heightening safety awareness and reducing the frequency and severity of accidents involving emergency vehicles.

Event Data Recorders (EDR), commonly known as Black Box systems, have been used for many years to record crash related data. One example of this is when a vehicle decelerates in a crash. If you conduct a literature search on the Internet on safe driving, you get a response back on many topics. This article takes a snap shot view of one component of risk control that can preserve an emergency service organization's number one investment with technology that has been in existence for a number of years - the black box.

Early efforts pertaining to black box technology conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) incorporated a device which used analog signal processing and recording devices to analyze and store the crash data. NHTSA (April 2004), www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/edr-site/history.html. Today, similar devices exist in many industries including buses, trucking companies, and corporate vehicles. Capable of monitoring a wide range of vehicular data, the black box has, in many industries, become invaluable.

The airline industry has used this technology for decades to obtain pre-crash data and reconstruct collision scenarios. Emergency services can take the aviation mentality and put it in the front line mentality of our primary mission, "to protect and save lives." The optimum goal of a "black box system" is provider safety through safe driving.

Black Boxes

Although black box technology has been around for decades, it remains very new to the emergency services industry. Similar in nature to the black box recorder of an aircraft, the black box is a proven risk control device with many positive attributes. Black box systems have four core benefits that enhance safety, improve driver performance, reduce maintenance costs, and aid in incident investigation. Their purpose is simply to create behavior modification in drivers. The black box records a wide range of data that when periodically downloaded to a computer or viewed through a television monitor, can be used to identify particular circumstances and trends of driver performance. This data is then used to increase safety and in a positive fashion to motivate your staff.

In order to understand the effects and positive uses of black box technology, responders must be clear on the role this device plays in the scheme of driving. With or without the use of black boxes, response outcomes affect the crew, the public, and the customer every day. Emergency responders are trained to respond and mitigate a variety of situations in an aggressive nature with rapid assessment, treatment, and suppression techniques. The services and expectations provided are high and can foster other challenges for the emergency service organization.

Black boxes are just one of many components in the overall driver education and training process. They are typically mounted under the driver's seat or on the windshield. The black boxes are connected to the many vehicle components used in everyday driving. One essential key to driving safely, is low force driving. Emergency vehicle drivers must understand the vehicle and how physical forces impact virtually every aspect of the driving process. Sound, safe driving habits must be developed by all emergency vehicle drivers. Safe driving habits are created when the correct skills are practiced in the correct manner every time one drives, on and off the job. In true defensive driving, there are unintentional things that happen. The non professional driver acts unexpectedly and the emergency service driver has to defensively react in a quick fashion. The use of "black box systems" assists drivers in accomplishing these safe driving habits.

Recording an actual collision has many benefits. One important benefit is that it addresses the near-miss incidents, which is critical. (A near-miss is the crash that never happened.) Avoiding a collision is paramount, thus education and training on safe driving habits is a necessity. Expecting the unexpected is essential to safe emergency response and the black box assists in providing knowledge of those expectations to the driver. Low force impact on the vehicle allows for increased control and a safer opportunity for safe passage. Black box technology plays a vital role in creating the required behavioral changes needed to obtain a safe response.


Several black box systems exist with varying ranges of tracking applications that can impact driver behavior modification and crash investigation. These include:

  • Speed based on user limits
  • Revolutions Per Minutes
  • Forces of vehicle
  • Cornering
  • Seat belt usage
  • Light and siren
  • Braking (hard and soft)
  • Turn signals
  • Reconstruction data
  • Digital video recording
  • Ignition and individual identifiers
  • Reverse and spotters
  • Real time feedback
  • Automatic data download

Some systems have the capability of notifying the driver and passenger(s) with real time modification through tone identifiers.


Dozens of positive examples exist for the constructive use of black boxes in the emergency vehicle. Here is just one: Metropolitan EMS (MEMS) in Little Rock, AR uses a version of the black box and has reaped the rewards. MEMS covers an 1800 square mile area with a population of 385,000. MEMS 21 units travel 1.5 million miles annually. As a result of the black box MEMS noted that driver performance was measurably improved, and they experienced a 10-20% reduction in brake and tire wear, reduced oil consumption, and the system aided an accident investigation with detailed events prior to the collision.

Although many benefits exist, capturing a near-miss, analyzing the data, and applying positive corrective measures may be the most profound benefit of a safe driving program. The near-miss is the crash that didn't happen. Unaddressed, the near-miss may breed a collision. The black box systems play an integral role in this process.


The positive applications and user feedback are only as good as the management and leadership behind the process. Black box systems may one day become standard equipment on emergency vehicles, but they require routine monitoring and constructive provider feedback. The emergency service organization must strive to ensure that these risk control systems are viewed with provider safety as the top priority and not big brother watching. Remember, used constructively, the black box can be the provider and organizations best friend.

For more information check out:

Any products or services featured in this document other than those provided by VFIS, should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement by VFIS.

Related Articles: Don't Become A Statistic Developing Procedures For Emergency Vehicle Response Safe Intersection Practices Responding In Personal Vehicles What's Your Speed Limit? Lights, Sirens...Action! Emergency Vehicle Driver Training: More Important Than Ever Selecting Emergency Vehicle Drivers Taking Control of Traffic - Electronically Emergency Vehicles and Intersections: Educating the Public VFIS Operation Safe Arrival Website

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!