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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

Understand the law before competing interests blow up on scene

Knowing the rules, involving LEOs early and engaging with the public can help avoid out-of-control conflicts

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: Following the on-video confrontation between a Florida fire captain and a civilian journalist, Chief Adam K. Thiel advises us to know the law, turn to police early and engage residents as means to reduce the chance for similar conflicts.

This isn't the first time we've seen a news story about an "in the street" confrontation (which may or may not be too strong a word in this case, depending on your perspective) between fire-EMS providers and interested bystanders or media personnel.

I certainly understand the fire department's potential concerns during this incident.

First, helicopter operations — takeoffs, landings, and everything in-between — are inherently dangerous to all involved, including those who think they're "far enough" away from the hazard area. Second, I think we all feel a duty (which, depending on the specific situation, might actually be a legal responsibility under the HIPPAA) to protect our patients' privacy and the confidentiality of their personal information.

At the same time, we can probably all assume that we're being filmed 24/7/365 during emergency operations (seen YouTube lately?) and that most of those photographers, provided they're on public property or have a reason to be at the incident scene, are within their rights to be shooting video/audio using anything from a smart phone to professional-quality equipment.

So there's the fire department, caught in the middle between several competing interests:

  1. scene, responder, and bystander safety;
  2. patient privacy; and
  3. upholding the First Amendment.

What do we do?

Know your department's, and individual, legal authorities and responsibilities to manage an incident scene. Early in my career I printed, and laminated, a copy of the relevant sections of state law; I still keep it in the pocket of my bunker coat. I've only had to use it a few times, but it definitely changed the tone of the discussion.

Quickly involve our law enforcement partners to help secure the scene. From talking to some of my colleagues, they're also working through the same issues, and might have a better sense of the dynamic boundaries in such matters than we do.

Proactively engage the media, and ordinary civilians, to provide information about how they can help the fire department during an incident, including the use of caution when taking video, respecting patients' privacy, etc. This might also be a good avenue to receive feedback from residents, and even get some of their video footage for training purposes.

Stay safe

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Blake Mayo Blake Mayo Tuesday, March 26, 2013 7:45:12 PM If the journalist was out of the way and did not get a reconizable image of the patients face then We can not stop them or anyother photographer/videographer from getting any image. The court has uphead their right to do so. On the other hand if the situation involved an arsonist then their images may be used to help in the criminal procedings.
Carl Burney Carl Burney Tuesday, March 26, 2013 7:47:24 PM Good article Chief. If I'm doing a fire investigation I welcome all of the pictures and video I can get, especially if I was not on an initially responding apparatus. As for this particular incident, The guy taking the video was not violating anyone's privacy and was clearly outside any "designated safety zone" (if one even existed) as cars were passing by on the street closer to the helo than where Captain Jack Ass was berating and bullying a citizen. And don't even get me started about waving the bloody gloves in the guys face...the guy really needs to be brought down from his egotistical power trip.He is definitely a legend in his own mind.
Lance Morris Lance Morris Tuesday, March 26, 2013 7:51:19 PM Hey chief look at YouTube. The news chopper got a visual pic of face but scrambled it. Capt Smart was so far off base on this he should be suspended w/o pay. If he were my captain, I would ask him why his duty to protect ALL the cars that kept driving through the LZ were not in danger? All your doing is CYA, YOU ARE WRONG!
Raymond L Ehlers II Raymond L Ehlers II Tuesday, March 26, 2013 8:52:20 PM if there are bystanders there then the press can be there is the golden rule
Fredric L. Rice Fredric L. Rice Tuesday, March 26, 2013 11:42:42 PM I don't agree about the suggestion that responders should claim "patient privacy" as a reason why civilians must keep to certain distances. Above all else, responders, law enforcement, other public people should *not* lie to civilians, more so journalists, even more so to people who have cameras running. Lying allows civilians open season to interject themselves in to hazardous situations, it gives them legitimacy. Patient privacy is not something that the responder is responsible for beyond information that said responder may divulge herself. It is not the duty of responders to look after and safeguard the privacy of people they are serving. Responders must not divulge private information however that duty stops at the line where a civilian is acquiring her own information independently. Stick with the truth, don't exaggerate, don't try to come up with a laundry list of plausible reasons to push civilians back beyond landing zones or zones of fling or the line of fire. Lying to people or exposing people to obvious dishonesty is a green light to people who wish to cover and report or know about what's going on, it motivates them from evacuating, from stepping back, from getting out of the way.
Ray Kemp Ray Kemp Wednesday, March 27, 2013 7:02:26 AM As a video producer that films EMS and Fire scenes for educational productions, I find the reference "we all feel a duty (which, depending on the specific situation, might actually be a legal responsibility under the HIPPAA) to protect our patients' privacy and the confidentiality of their personal information" contributory to the problem of trying to control what bystanders and the media can or cannot film. Bystanders, media, etc. are not part of the "covered entity" provisions within the ruling that spells out who bound to conform to HIPAA. HIPAA makes absolutely no provisions that first responders that are bound by HIPAA are therefore also required to "police" what photos, video, etc. can be taken by bystanders or the media. This self induced policing, such as what is witnessed in this video, is just getting the first responders in more hot water. Bottom line - don't get wrapped up into what the media or bystanders are filming. Just do what is necessary to provide good patient care and move on. Again, it's not any first responders responsibility to control what bystanders or the media can film on an open public incident nor are they required to do so by any law, state or federal.
Daryl Amrozowicz Daryl Amrozowicz Wednesday, March 27, 2013 2:19:22 PM It is of utmost importance to know and understand the laws, rules, regulations and ethics of the profession we're engaged in. It is also of utmost importance to understand the legal pitfalls and ramifications of improper conduct. For firefighters who are cross-trained in EMS, there are two professions to keep up with, and for those firefighters who are employed by a governmental entity there are additional legal issues. An employee of the government has the duty to abide by the laws, rules and regulations (including that old, pesky document that I will cling to, the CONSTITUTION) that prohibits the state (and its employees -- that's us as firefighters) from violating the rights of the citizens (our family and friends, as well as the rest of the population). After viewing the video, former Captain Smart (if the MDFD has any common sense) is most likely facing a potential of charges from the justice department of violating the videographer's civil rights -- and, in light of the video tape, the videographer will win. The thought process of bringing HIPPA into this exchange shows further ignorance of the laws by many of my colleagues, a sad state of affairs. HIPPA only applies to heath care providers, not to the general public, and certainly not this videographer. The practice of blurring faces and license plates of people and vehicles involved shows compassion for the victim and a good sense of ethical behavior, but it is not required by any law. Next, let's look at the physical battery (unlawful touching of another) and verbal assault that took place. Now criminal sanctions are in play, and, should be used. We, as firefighters, should be displaying the utmost in professionalism and as agents of the state, should be held to the highest legal standards. If we want people prosecuted for assaulting and battering us, we should be prosecuted if (and it should never happen -- but it has here) we assault and batter another. The addition of the fact that the agent of the state has bloody gloves on his hand, the biohazards present can be an additional and/or aggravating criminal charge. The agent then further incites the situation by making an unfounded report of a "combative" bystander to the police. The agent of the state has made an unlawful command to which the videographer has no duty to comply. In this case, the agent of the state ignored the safety of his employees, the uniformed person in the street at the beginning of the video, and the numerous privately operated vehicles that passed between the videographer and the landing zone. This eliminates the claim that the agent was looking out for the safety of the videographer, and further shows a clear intention on the part of the agent to single this particular videographer out for unlawful prosecution. This unprofessional, unethical and unlawful conduct should produce clear, quick and unequivocal disciplinary action, not only to limit the liability of the governmental entity, but also the professional relationship that needs to be present between firefighters and law enforcement. If I were a law enforcement agency in that jurisdiction, I would be hesitant at best to act on any radio information I would receive from this fire department -- and for good reason (see this video)! I would also point out that there was not one employed person in ANSI garments. The uniformed person in the beginning of the video is in the street -- an obvious location for the required safety apparel. The (former?) captain crossed the street (as did the first medic/firefighter) without a vest. Both had gloves on. One firefighter/medic exited the front of the EMS unit with gloves on. No one in the LZ had proper head and eye protection visible, and I doubt that there was adequate ear protection either. Now in the last paragraph I have the luxury of looking at the scene through a video. I appreciate the very last line of Chief Thiel's editorial, but I think that his point should be emphasized. How much better would it have been for this captain's career and the rest of the MDFD if instead of making an enemy of the videographer, the captain would have asked the man if he would be kind enough to email a copy of the video to the department (or snail-mail a CD) for them to be able to use it for training purposes, since the firefighters are not able to take such video and this video could let them improve upon their techniques, tactics and safety? Instead of facing civil and criminal penalties, creating an enemy and loads of ill will towards the department, the department could be self-policing their personnel's compliance to policies, procedures and best practices. Or have we all been duped and this is actually a training film of what NOT to do? I can only hope that this case, I will be using this video at my department's next training session as such.

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