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Fla. ambulance cameras increase safety, cut costs

Although crashes haven’t been eliminated, their numbers have reduced significantly and use of seat belts has increased since cameras were installed

By Tori Walker
The Ledger

LAKELAND, Fla. — About 2:30 one morning, Polk County firefighter Lou Sericolo was heading to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center when a car almost slammed into the county ambulance he was driving.

The car had run through a stop sign.

But thanks to Polk County Fire Rescue’s DriveCam installed on the windshield of the ambulance, the incident was recorded and saved for review.

It shows the car speeding toward Sericolo’s right side, him quickly swerving to the left, forcing him to do a 180 in the middle of the road and just barely avoiding a bad wreck.

“It wasn’t an accident but it was close and it could have been bad,” Sericolo said. “If he would have hit the truck (ambulance) he would have taken out the back of it.”

Although crashes haven’t been eliminated, their numbers have reduced significantly and use of seat belts has increased since DriveCams were installed in more than 100 vehicles about a year ago.

“They have really encouraged better and more defensive driving,” said Kevin Watler, PCFR spokesman.

In 2015, the total number of crashes was 14, which have decreased by about 28 percent to 10 in 2016.

The amount of money the department paid in 2015 for at-fault crashes was $64,427 versus only $17,563 in 2016.

Watler said the numbers don’t show a true picture, however, because the department has increased its fleet by 17 vehicles in 2016, which means it has more vehicles on the road.

“Having more vehicles on the road increases the chance of a collision,” Watler said.

The department began installing DriveCams in January 2016, after completing an 18-month trial period with the cams supplied by The Lytx Co. out of San Diego.

It cost about $81,334 to install the cameras in medic units, rescue units and fire engines, and there is an annual subscription fee of $41,301.

But Watler said the DriveCams are already saving PCFR money.

“There has been ‘he said she said’ in the past (when it comes to crashes) and the DriveCam can vindicate a driver,” he said.

The camera recently saved the county $20,000 when it worked as evidence in a case regarding a crash.

“In the short time we’ve had the DriveCams, we not only have a tool for coaching purposes, but it saves the county from having to pay out money when we’re not at fault,” Walter said.

Sericolo, who has been working for PCFR for 16 months, said the cameras could save a department member’s job.

“It benefits you because if you do get into an accident and it isn’t your fault, it records the before and after,” he said.

The DriveCam, which is mounted on the windshield, has outside-facing and inside-facing lenses.

The camera is recording at all times, but that doesn’t mean it is live recording.

The DriveCam event recorder contains sensors, including an accelerometer and a gyroscope, to detect driving events like a sudden swerve or hard brake that might indicate either a collision or a near collision, said Gretchen Griswold, senior director of corporate communications with Lytx.

“It is recording all the time but it only captures and saves when a crash is about to happen,” Watler explained, in a 12-second video clip when triggered by a driving event: eight seconds prior to the event and four seconds after.

It can also be manually turned on by the driver.

“This is to protect the driver’s privacy and to ensure that our clients don’t have to view hours of video to find that one clip that may be relevant,” Griswold said.

The cameras will also perform audits of the drivers, recording them at random times to make sure they are following the rules and driving defensively.

Because Fire Rescue members are responding to emergency calls in abnormal, stressful and difficult driving environments, their driving tactics need to be monitored for safety purposes.

Watler said if drivers are recorded driving in unsafe ways, Battalion Chief Jeff Calcutt will speak with them and they could be sent back to the department’s internal driving school.

Sericolo said the cameras help the drivers focus while operating county vehicles worth thousands of dollars of the public’s money.

Lytx, which has been around since 1998, has more than 350,000 subscriptions in service with more than 600,000 drivers with DriveCams.

Watler said they aren’t just beneficial for fire and rescue services but for other truck drivers.

“Any company that has a large amount of fleet,” he said. “They do see the significant savings of it.”

But PCFR is the only fire and rescue service in Polk County that uses DriveCams. Hardee and Hillsborough County Fire Rescue services do not use them either.

Interim Chief Joseph Walker of Hardee County Fire Rescue, however, did say he thought they were a good idea.

“I do feel that they are certainly beneficial in today’s society,” he said.

Although most of the department’s vehicles already have the cameras, Watler said, in all likelihood the cameras will be put into all emergency vehicles within the fire rescue division if funding is available.

“We are creating a defensive driving atmosphere that reinforces good driving habits,” he said.

Most department members support the cameras and Sericolo said those who don’t say it’s because they don’t like feeling watched.

“But more people just don’t care, I forget it’s there sometimes,” Sericolo said.

Watler said most people associate cameras in vehicles with law enforcement but said the public should know fire and rescue services use them because they benefit them, too.

“People should know that we are being proactive and doing our best to prevent collisions,” he said. “We are in the business of protecting people and do not ever want to be the problem.”

Copyright 2017 The Ledger