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Know what to do with fireground video

Sensitivity, common sense and following policy need to come into play when capturing and releasing fireground video

Editor’s note: In the wake of a helmet cam video being released to the displeasure of the fire chief, Chief Adam K. Thiel advices us to consider our ethical obligations to those being captured on video.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a story about firefighters using helmet-mounted (or other) video cameras to record incident scene footage and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Personally, I have mixed feelings on the topic. I’ve said before that I think video is an excellent way to communicate with the public and help them better understand what we do, and how we do it. The benefits of having actual video to analyze fireground operations and support training activities are also obvious.

At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize there are some very different, and sometimes conflicting, aspects to recording an incident. These are essentially the same for both still and video photography, and probably audio recording, as well.

Having the equipment is one thing, knowing when (and when not) to use it is quite another. I like to think that anyone in the fire and emergency services has enough sense to “stop the camera” — or never start — under certain situations.

I don’t mean from a liability standpoint; many law enforcement agencies are recording almost everything, having found that the protective benefits outweigh the potential disadvantages. But rather from respect for those we serve.

Once the footage is captured, there’s a decision about whether, and how, to use it. Just because you took it, doesn’t mean you have to use it. And last time I checked, it’s pretty easy to hit delete on a digital recording device. If you’re going to use the video for authorized fire department training, then you can probably ask permission first.

I think everyone can see the benefits of helmet-cam video for internal training and public education, but once you decide to post it in a public forum without permission, you’ve probably crossed a bright line. If your department has a policy, you should follow it. If not, then hopefully you’ll be guided by compassion and common sense.

If that’s hard: just imagine someone you trust walking through your house, filming your family’s worst day, and posting it online for the entire world to see.

I wouldn’t like that. Would you?

Stay safe!

Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. 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.