SF firefighter faces discipline for helmet camera

The chief said the footage was taken on the firefighters' personal camera and was not authorized in the workplace or at stations

The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The San Francisco fire battalion chief whose helmet-mounted camera captured the moment a 16-year-old Asiana Airlines crash survivor was struck and killed by an airport fire rig is facing a reprimand for allegedly violating department rules, The Chronicle has learned.

Chief Joanne Hayes-White's disciplinary action against Battalion Chief Mark Johnson comes two weeks after images from the video became public, prompting questions about the actions of first responders before the July 6 death of Chinese schoolgirl Ye Meng Yuan at San Francisco International Airport.

After several images were published by The Chronicle, the chief told commanders she believed Johnson's footage — taken on his personal camera — was not authorized under a 2009 departmental general order that precludes unauthorized video recording "in the workplace" and at stations.

The privacy rights of victims and firefighters outweighed any value of helmet-camera footage, Hayes-White said.

On Tuesday, a department spokeswoman declined to comment on the disciplinary case against Johnson, saying any action would be confidential. A reprimand goes into the personnel file of a firefighter but does not include a financial penalty.

Johnson has declined to comment. It is not clear whether he will appeal to the city Fire Commission.

The head of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association that represents Johnson, Battalion Chief Kevin Smith, confirmed Johnson had received a letter of reprimand. He questioned how a 2009 policy aimed at preventing unauthorized recording at fire stations could be so broadly applied.

"It's a far stretch from the general order," Smith said. "They knew they didn't have a policy - they were approached over a year ago by some staff who told them they needed to have a policy to address helmet cams."

But no policy was devised, Smith said.

"This sends a bad message," he said. "It says if you try to be innovative and you try to bring light to darkness, bring some clarity to how we conduct business, you could be punished."

The future of such recordings remains unclear. A day after Hayes-White told commanders of the ban on cameras, the chief's office appeared to soften that stance.

Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said the rule would remainin effect while the department reconsiders whether to allow video recording in light of the evidentiary and training value of Johnson's footage.

The footage shows Johnson taking command of the fire response and rescue effort from the airport Fire Department after a Boeing 777 crashed on landing, clipping a rocky seawall after coming in too low and too slow.

Johnson took charge without being told that airport firefighters had already found the body of Ye Meng Yuan, who was presumed to be dead, by the left wing of the craft. By the time Johnson arrived at the crash site, Ye's body was covered by fire-retardant foam.

A fire rig leaving the scene to get water soon ran over the girl, who was alive at the time, according to the San Mateo County coroner's office.

The San Francisco Police Department, which is investigating Ye's death, has a copy of the footage, as does the National Transportation Safety Board, which is reviewing the circumstances surrounding Ye's death.

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