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


Editor’s Note:

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.

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