Telematics and Vehicle Connectivity, or “Why Do I Need All That Stuff on My Truck?”

For those of us old enough to remember, in the mid-1970s the phrase “The Information Age” was coined. For the first time in our lives, because of the rolling out of cable television, the Telex machine (precursor to the fax machine), the mobile telephone, and eventually the internet and the affordable personal computer, society no longer had to await the evening news hour to learn of the events of the world–they became available at our fingertips, often as they happened.

Fast forward, in terms of the automotive market, to 1996, when the first OnStar® systems were rolled out in select General Motors consumer vehicles. The population now had the ability to passively interact with vehicle manufacturers and dealers to keep their cars running safely whenever they were behind the wheel.

The question you may be asking at this point is, “Thanks for the history lesson, but what does that have to do with my emergency vehicle?” Simply put, the Information Age has now enveloped the first responder world.

For the past several decades, Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) member companies have been working toward the goal of providing the information necessary to keep emergency vehicles and their systems (powertrain, pumps and governors, foam and CAFS systems, and more) running smoothly while in use, using modern electronics. This in-vehicle technology, broadly termed “multiplexing,” provides a network of sensors and controllers wherein the electrical components are controlled and operating and fault information from vehicle systems is received and processed to an easy-to-read display screen, whether in the cab, on the pump panel, or both.

As technology has significantly improved in the past several years and as the younger generations of firefighters and officers have become more comfortable with embracing electronic technology, the next advancement in vehicle electronics is the integration of “telematics” to these already complex and expansive systems.

Oddly enough, “telematics” is not defined in Miriam-Webster’s online dictionary. However, a commonly accepted definition is the combining of “telemetry” (electronic data obtained from sensors and controllers and generally transmitted over the air via radio, cellular, or Wi-Fi signals) and “informatics” (information science).

Imagine, if you will, every minute a modern vehicle is operating, whether driving down a road or operating while parked at an emergency scene, thousands of electronic messages are being generated by the components on that vehicle. From engine revolutions per minute and coolant temperatures to pump intake pressures and tank levels to warning light status and seat belt engagement, this data is available for use by the vehicle operator. Now journey farther into your imagination. What if that data were able to be collected, transmitted over the air to a cloud-based information collection system, then processed into actionable items by your department? How would everyone in that department, whether chief, line officer, safety and training, or fleet maintenance, be able to improve outcomes and protect lives and equipment better? The answer is telematics.

Systems are available from several FAMA member companies or offered on the vehicles they manufacture that collect vehicle telemetry and provide access to the data collected through a secure Web site. The extent of the data collected as well as the methods of retrieval may vary, but there are many common benefits:

  • Engine Diagnostic Trouble Codes: Being able to retrieve and analyze engine fault information before the vehicle even makes its way to the shop can begin the lengthy process of diagnosis and possibly allow parts departments to begin pulling repair components.
  • Preventive Maintenance Operations: Having the vehicle notify the department when it is due for an oil change, transmission service, or even an annual inspection takes the burden off maintaining a packed service calendar, especially in a busy fleet shop.
  • Tracking Common Failures: Are your vehicles constantly going through brake pads? Is it because of the quality of replacement pads or perhaps the driving habits of the operators? Do two chassis of similar weights and builds but perhaps made by different manufacturers experience vastly different service issues?
  • Keeping Repair Costs Down: By being alerted to and repairing minor issues, departments can often prevent catastrophic failures that could develop from neglecting the small ones. Servicing the seals on a pump when indicated is certainly less expensive than replacing an impeller.
  • GPS Location Services: Tracking vehicles in real time may prove beneficial on several fronts. Not only can the user find the vehicle’s location should the crew be unreachable by radio in an emergency, but also being able to analyze the routes traveled to calls provides value in training scenarios.

These and many more examples are common in the world of emergency vehicle telematics. Visit the FAMA Web site ( to check out member companies and learn more about their systems.

A common misconception regarding telematics is the notion that systems are only needed in larger departments with well-established fleet garages. However, having a telematics system on the two or three vehicles in a smaller volunteer department can pay dividends as well.

These departments may not be staffed with members technically skilled to diagnose and repair issues, but having the ability to “have the truck speak for itself” through an e-mail alert to the chief, who can notify the service provider, provides the opportunity to take action on an issue that may not even be noticed for several days or weeks or until the vehicle is unable to perform as required on an emergency scene.

Another exciting area of technology that is gaining awareness is the ability for vehicles to passively communicate with each other and with the public.

Connected vehicles are the next frontier of automotive technology. Connected vehicle technology is closely related to the concept of telematics in many ways. Like telematics, connected vehicle technology enables fleet or vehicle managers to collect and send data from vehicles in the field. Telematics solutions often use connected vehicle technology to enable real-time monitoring of vehicle data from other remote locations. While telematics is focused on the collection and analysis of vehicle performance data, connected vehicle technology creates new capabilities and functionalities in vehicles and transportation more broadly.

Nearly every element of a successful transportation system is built on communication. Drivers know the proper speed and what road they’re on based on signage that follows clear standards and design specifications. Traffic is rerouted and funneled to destinations using arrow boards, cones, and other tools that provide direction. Drivers are even taught to slow down and move over if they encounter certain vehicles with flashing lights such as fire apparatus, police vehicles, tow trucks, school buses, and other fleet vehicles.

All these rules of the road require communication of some kind. The development and evolution of transportation systems in the past decade have relied almost exclusively on signage, lights and sirens, cones, and other traditional tools to communicate critical information to drivers on the road. In the same way that internet connectivity disrupted other traditional forms of communication like mail, television, and radio, vehicle connectivity is now transforming communication on the road.

Connected vehicles are capable of both sending and receiving data on the road, and the range of data that can be transmitted and used by vehicles is broad and constantly expanding. Critical road safety messages from the Department of Transportation and transportation officials can be sent inside the vehicle, in addition to external signage. Lane closures and route redirections can be communicated to drivers more effectively and earlier. Emergency vehicle preemption connects vehicles to signals in their community, enabling faster responses unimpeded by red lights.

Today, connected vehicle technology is even enabling vehicles to communicate on the road with one another. Digital alerting services are now notifying drivers when they’re approaching active responders and workers on the road, giving them more time to slow down and safely move over rather than relying exclusively on sirens and flashing lights. Emergency vehicles approaching the same intersection can even notify crews early enough to slow down and avoid a collision before reaching each other.

Telematics and connectivity are truly transformational forces in transportation. For emergency responders and public safety professionals in particular, telematics unlocks a new world of insight into the performance of vehicles and fleet assets. By collecting and analyzing data on the performance and operation of key vehicle components, departments can anticipate the depreciation of parts, avoid costly repairs, and ensure that fleets are performing as efficiently as possible. Connectivity unlocks even more possibilities for all drivers by building new forms of communication between fleets and the communities they serve. Connected vehicle technology enables responders to operate on infrastructure that can dynamically adapt to their needs in real time by notifying drivers of upcoming responders and hazards, shifting the flow of traffic away from incidents, and anticipating and preventing collisions between vehicles.

As transportation and vehicle technologies continue to evolve, public safety professionals will play a pivotal role in shaping the direction and future of mobility for drivers everywhere. The time to engage with these technologies is now; a new world is just around the corner.

FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.

FAMA Forum creative content is contributed by unpaid volunteer authors. Any opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of FAMA or its member companies.