To video or not to video? That is the question. Recently, Dave Statter (@Statter911) told me of an incident where the Washington DC police department was criticized for hassling a citizen videotaping police operations on a public street. The incident made the news, and the police chief apologized. With the proliferation of smartphones with built in video cameras, there are now millions of citizen journalists poised to capture the initial moments of emergencies and our reactions to them. This capability can be a tremendous asset, or a big albatross around our necks. We often make the choice ourselves.
Many of us who routinely follow current fire service events cringed when we heard about a Georgia firefighter who used his personal phone to shoot video at the scene of a fatal car crash, including a graphic shot of the deceased still trapped in the car. Shortly thereafter, he sent the video to some friends, who then passed it along to their friends, and…guess what? Yep, the family of the dead woman saw it too. A media feeding frenzy soon began, including a CNN interview with the victim’s family. The firefighter was subsequently terminated for recording the video and then trying to cover up the fact that he sent it to others. One can only assume that a civil suit is, or is going to be filed in this case.
Compounding the issue of duty related “freelance” video recording is the proliferation of helmet cameras; small ruggedized, waterproof devices affixed to the side of a fire helmet, recording video wherever the wearer’s head is pointed. There are dozens of YouTube videos taken with firefighter helmet cameras, offering the public a rare glimpse about the conditions first-in crews face at working fires and other emergencies. It also provides documentation for after action reviews (AAR) and fireground training. Here is short clip of a citizen video shot in the early morning hours as the first-in engine arrives at a fire in one of our downtown buildings (The crew made a great stop by the way). I stumbled upon it a few months ago.
But, this capability presents problems as well.
As anyone knows, fireground operations are highly fluid situations, a target rich environment for tactical mistakes and Monday morning quarterbacking by anyone watching. Providing graphic evidence of real or perceived mistakes can be a nightmare for the agency administration, or as noted above the individual shooting the video. Houston Fire addressed this conundrum in 2009 by banning helmet camera use by individual firefighters. Does your agency have such a policy? Given the number of helmet camera and close-in emergency scene videos, I guessing there are many that don’t.
Chiefs, you need to go to YouTube and search for videos by your department name. If you find ‘em, watch ‘em…all of ‘em. Then get busy writing an appropriate policy on how your folks can or can’t use personal video devices at work. You and your department’s reputation may depend on it.