THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY OF CAMERAS IN THE FIRE SERVICE

firefighter helmet cameraLet’s face it, in todays world, cameras are everywhere. Between the news media and reality television, people are addicted to capturing and sharing every facet of life. There are plenty of great benefits that stem from this; however, there are also potential concerns we should all be thinking about, especially as Firefighters. 

These days nearly everyone carries a cell phone with some type of photo and video capability. It’s not uncommon to look up from a rescue or fire scene and see a line of people holding their cell phones in front of them capturing the chaos and along with it, everything you are doing. Couple that with the growing number of surveillance cameras in homes and businesses and it’s not far-fetched to assume our actions are always being caught on camera.

Many, myself included, would argue we should always operate as if we are being recorded. We can all agree, as firefighters (and good human beings), we should operate in a professional and respectful manner on and off the job; however, not everyone follows this guiding principle. In today’s media driven climate, you could easily find yourself and your actions being broadcast to the world on the evening news or going viral on Youtube.

If everything goes well, the results could be positive for you, your department and the Fire Service. However, if anything goes wrong or if you’ve acted negligently and/or unprofessionally, the fallout could be detrimental to you (and your family), your department and the Fire Service reputation.

Some things to think about:

  • Are you following policy and protocols?
  • Are you being respectful and professional in your interactions with the public?
  • Are you representing the Fire Service profession to the highest standard?
  • Would your Chief and fellow firefighters respect your actions?
  • Would your family be proud of you and your actions?

It’s important to think about these things, since there’s a high potential of being filmed by the public while performing our duties. 

But what happens when WE, as FIREFIGHTERS, start doing the filming? 

Firefighters are drawn to tech gadgets like kids are to toys. Look in the turnout pockets and gear bags of almost any firefighter, and you’ll find an assortment of knives, flashlights, multifunction tools, and all other manner of slick devices.

In recent years, a newer tech “tool” has been creating a lot of reactions – both positive and negative – among fire department leaders, the public and the press. Advancing beyond regular cell phone cameras, the use of helmet-mounted cameras have created some incredible firefighting footage, but have also created a firestorm of controversy within some departments.

Advancing beyond regular cell phone cameras, the use of HELMET CAMERAS (or helmet cams), which are helmet mounted cameras, have created some incredible firefighting footage, but have also created a firestorm of controversy with some departments.

Developing Technology and the Fire Service

The technology boom of the last ten years has greatly impacted nearly every facet of our daily lives. With the use of smart phones and tablets we have access to advanced technology, literally at our fingertips. The use of this technology in the fire service has become a public debate, and department debate, for the last few years.

Recent cases have highlighted the gray area associated with use of phone cameras and helmet cameras in the fire service. Many municipal departments have taken a stance against the use of this technology during emergency responses. Other departments have not specified a policy. Regardless of whether or not your department has identified a stance on utilizing this advanced technology in the workplace, modern firefighters should know the potential benefits as well as the risks associated with its use.

Training Benefits

The use of cameras, especially helmet cameras, in the fire service can improve the performance, training, and education of current and future firefighters. These devices are able to capture video of emergency situations, and we are able to later watch and evaluate our responses on the fire and rescue grounds. Utilizing this technology allows us the opportunity to evaluate our performance and identify areas of improvement, and these videos can also be used in training other firefighters.

True emergency situations cannot be duplicated in a training session. There is truth to the adage, “We fight like we train;” however, the training ground can not replicate the time critical pressure and adrenaline produced during real emergency responses. These videos can serve as a tool for individual firefighters, as well as entire departments, to review and evaluate our effectiveness. 

Investigation Benefits

Fire destroys evidence. As first responders we are often the primary source of information during an arson investigation because we have been the last to see the scene just prior to and during its destruction. However, studies have shown first responders have poor recollection of emergency scenes due to high levels of adrenaline and stress from the situation.

Helmet cameras can serve the purpose of a second pair of eyes, often capturing the scene before it’s destroyed. These videos allow investigators to view the fire scene as it happened and to glean clues as to the cause and origin of the fire.  

Personal Privacy Violations

While camera footage can be useful in training and investigation, it also bring up concerns regarding privacy. There is no doubt that recording of emergency scenes, victims and other responders has potential to be an enormous violation of personal privacy. Without signed releases from each individual involved the personal privacy of all parties is violated if the video should be leaked.

Let’s not forget the 2010 case of Georgia firefighter, Terrence Reid who took cell phone video of a gruesome car accident that claimed the life of a 22 year old mother. The video footage was shared, posted online and went viral. Later, it was ultimately forwarded to the parents of the deceased. The victim’s family now has to live with the horrendous images of their deceased daughter in that video.

Terrence Reid was later fired over the video. His department, the Spalding County Fire Department and the Fire Service as a whole, came under criticism in the national media about firefighters use of personal cell phones on the job. The deceased parents began a national campaign to make it illegal for firefighters and first responders to carry a personal cell phone with them while working.

The Gray Area: Evidence, For or Against You

Use of camera, video and helmet cam footage can provide valuable information in instances of personnel investigations. Footage can be used as evidence against you or it can be used as evidence in your defense. For example, think of law enforcement officers dash and lapel cams.  

Another example of first responder camera footage evidence involves the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco.

During the course of the rescue, helmet cam (worn by a Battalion Chief) and dash camera footage on the Charlie rigs showed a 16 year old girl on the ground, under the left wing. The footage showed fire-retardant foam being sprayed, covering the victim’s body and later showed her being run over by two separate fire rigs operating on scene. The coroners report showed the girl, Ye Meng Yuan, was alive when she was run over and died as a result of those injuries.

After the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 situation, the San Francisco Fire Department banned the use of any recording devices stating it violates the personal rights of both fire fighters and victims on scene. This announcement coincides directly with the Flight 214 situation, leading the public to believe the banning is more related to the liability the SFFD assumed after the leaking of the video than it is to privacy concerns.

Recently, the SFFD stated they are reviewing their camera policy and will likely revise it to allow certain, trained members of the department to film under specific guidelines for training and investigation purposes.

The Verdict Is Still Out

The place for helmet cameras and other recording devices in the fire service is still a gray area for many departments. While the use of these devices can serve great purpose in training and investigation, it is not without its risk.

As firefighters and first responders, you must be aware of your departments’ policies concerning the use of this technology. There is potential for personal liability should the use of recording devices violate department policy or victim privacy.

The technology is out there and the benefits, when it is used appropriately, are numerous. Utilizing this technology for training and the improvement of your professional skills is a valuable benefit and reason to consider it. Using this technology for entertainment or to share with friends is not professionally appropriate and can lead to negative consequences for all.  

Ultimately its up to you and your department to decide whether the benefits of cameras outweigh the liability risks. Of course, if your department has set policy on it, then the decision has already been made for you. If your department has not set policy on the use of this technology, you will need to decide what is appropriate and serves a beneficial purpose and what is unnecessary and a potential liability.

Does your department have a policy regarding cameras, video and helmet cams? Let us know in the comments below.