10 things to look for in fire truck dashboard cameras

Not all cameras are created equal, and some features may be more relevant to the fire service than others

Camera systems are becoming more prevalent on fire apparatus. They not only improve the safety of personnel riding on the apparatus (inward-facing cameras) but also the safety of individuals outside the vehicle (outward-facing cameras).

Additionally, the footage from these cameras useful for training and incident investigation should something go wrong.

Cameras that provide rear, side or forward vision for the vehicle's driver/operator eliminate or significantly reduce blind spots. And, cameras located at the back of the apparatus that provide a view during backing operations are becoming commonplace.

More recently, side-view cameras and front-view cameras help increase the driver's field of vision for lane changes, monitoring placement of aerial jacks, and even for improved views for tiller operators. They can also give a better view if they have an overhanging platform; a tender operator can use cameras to monitor water discharges without leaving the cab.

With all of these benefits, here are 10 buying tips for departments looking to add dash-mounted cameras to their rigs.

1. Automatic recording
Look for the capability to set it and forget it. You'll want a model of camera that can be properly hard-wired into the electrical system of the fire apparatus so that when the vehicle starts so does the camera.

2. Loop recording
Loop recording means that once your storage is full, the camera automatically overwrites the oldest files on the memory card, thus enabling it to record indefinitely. Most cameras record to SD cards, which have storage up to the 32-GB range.

Two minutes of high-definition video will take up about 100 MB of memory, so lack of storage should not be a concern.

Consider only those cameras that automatically loop back and start recording at the beginning of the card over the old content once the memory card is full. That way, you don't need to worry about deleting the old, unimportant videos of a drive to the grocery store without incident.

This automatic file management, along with automatic recording on startup, are what make a dedicated camera a much better option than using something that needs to be reset every time, like a smartphone or a GoPro.

3. G-sensor
This is a must-have feature, especially for an outward-facing camera that's recording what's happening in front of the vehicle. When the G-sensor notices an impact, it will automatically mark the current footage for safekeeping so it doesn't accidentally get deleted by the loop recording.

4. Lock file button
A lock file button, or emergency button, is a dedicated button on the camera allowing you to mark the current video footage for safekeeping. This means you can save your video file with a single touch of a button instead of potentially having to go through a menu.

Most modern dash cams have a G-sensor, so when an impact is detected the footage will be saved anyway, but a lock file button is convenient in case anything else happens where you would like to keep the video.

5. Date and time stamp
This comes in handy if you ever need to use your video footage as evidence. Make sure to set the date and time correctly when you install your camera.

6. GPS
Integrated GPS enables the camera to record your exact position and speed, and to blend it into the video feed along with the date and time stamp. One drawback is that the camera will be bigger and more expensive.

There are dash cameras that can connect to an external GPS module, keeping the camera small and discreet. External modules tend to pick up the GPS signal faster and more reliably, but a drawback is that you have to install the GPS module somewhere separately.

7. Dual-channel
While regular dash cams only record the view through the windshield (looking forward), dual-channel cams also look back into the crew cab of the apparatus. This is a great feature. However, you'll pay quite a bit more for a quality dual-channel dash camera than for a single-channel system.

8. Video resolution
The camera that you acquire must be able to record high definition video — 720p or 1080p video quality — during all levels of daylight and at night. The standard in 2015 has become 1080p or higher; 1080p means a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, also known as Full HD.

Reviewers of dash cams know not to judge the quality based on published video since the footage gets compressed when uploaded to YouTube. When evaluating the quality of a camera you're considering for purchase, use actual video (typically in AVI format) from the camera and view it on a computer.

Video quality is especially important for cameras that will record video that may find its way into evidence in a legal proceeding or departmental investigation. HD video will help ensure that every important detail within the camera's field of view will be clear, be it license plate numbers, movement of cars, actions of the driver, etc.

9. Night quality
Pay close attention to a camera's ability to record high-quality video at night. Some camera manufacturers put infrared LEDs around the lens in an attempt to improve the video quality.

Many camera reviewers are of the opinion that this doesn't work: the illumination from the bulbs won't do much besides possibly cause windshield glare.

However, just because a camera has these lights, it doesn’t mean that model is bad. Many reviewers recommend keeping the supplemental lighting off and let the cam work with your headlights and street lamps. Any camera with HD video recording capability should be able to produce video at night that is still sharp enough for most purposes.

As with any product, you can pay a bit more for a higher-end camera and the night vision will be a bit better, but unless you're documenting some serious footage, your night drives won't need much more than the HD quality it captures anyway.

10. Screen
While a screen is great to see what your camera recorded right away, it also makes the camera bigger and thus less discreet. The notable exceptions are rear-view mirror cameras, which integrate the screen right into the mirror's surface.

Keep these points in mind as you outfit your fleet with dash-mounted cameras.

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