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How firefighters should handle First Amendment audits

Training on these scenarios can help firefighters avoid making a bad decision in the heat of the moment


The Stockton incident is being held up as an example of how to handle First Amendment audits in a professional and nonconfrontational manner.

Photo/Highdesert community watch news network

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Many firefighters have never heard of First Amendment audits (also known as 1A audits), although they may have already been the subject of one. The term refers to a movement led by self-proclaimed “auditors” to test constitutional rights. These auditors photograph or record public officials at work, often in a deliberately provocative manner, all to test the boundaries of the First Amendment and report on the results to an online following.

Recent 1A audits: New York City and Stockton, California

Two 1A audits of firefighters have been in the news recently – in New York City and in Stockton, California. The New York City incident concluded with a tense confrontation between firefighters and the man with the camera. The Stockton incident is being held up as an example of how to handle such events in a professional and nonconfrontational manner.

Comparing the two incidents is not entirely fair, however. It is clear from the audio of the Stockton encounter that the man with the camera approached the fire station with positive feelings about firefighters and never did anything to provoke those he was filming. In fact, at least some of the firefighters seemed to have no idea that the man filming was anything other than a citizen interested in seeing the fire trucks.

The New York City incident went very differently. In that case, the firefighters saw a man hanging around their personal vehicles at night (the Stockton 1A audit occurred during the day). When they questioned him, he was immediately confrontational, rude and threatening. Things escalated from there.

Tips for handling 1A audits

Regardless of whether the person with the camera is nice or a jerk, there are several points that all firefighters must keep in mind when it comes to 1A audits.

The first and most important thing is that, in most cases, a person filming you doing your job in a public place is perfectly legal and not something you can stop just because you don’t like it. Unless someone has breached a designated safety zone or is actively interfering with operations, their right to stand on a public street with their phone pointed at you is just something you have to live with.

The whole point of a 1A audit is to be provocative, and the auditors often try to get reactions from the people being recorded. So as a public official, it is vital to not “play” the game and get provoked. In other words, if someone has a camera pointed at you on an emergency scene, ignore them and continue to do your job.

Engaging with the person filming often leads to a bad outcome. Consider the case of the Michigan firefighter who told the person who was recording to leave the scene, and when that person refused, threatened to report him as a suspected arsonist. Then there was the Florida fire officer who physically threatened a guy with a camera, grabbing him while still wearing bloody medical gloves. When firefighters allow themselves to be provoked in this way, it is not only bad for them personally, but also for their departments, not to mention the fire service as a whole.

If someone doing a 1A audit asks you for information, respond to that request as best you can in a concise and professional manner. If you are on an emergency scene, refer the person to the public information officer (PIO) or the officer in charge for specific information. Above all, do not get into an argument with someone who is trying to provoke you. This is an argument you cannot win, especially considering the fact that those with the camera also have editing tools at their disposal. Be polite and focus on doing your job.

Training can help prepare firefighters for the inevitable 1A audit. Watching videos and talking through different scenarios in a facilitated group are useful tools to prepare firefighters in order to prevent them from being blindsided and making a bad decision in the heat of the moment.

The best organizational preparation for a First Amendment audit is cultivating positive community relations all the time. Leaders need to ensure that all department members understand the importance of professionalism as a way of building and maintaining trust with the communities they serve. Those who do 1A audits usually have an agenda, but that agenda can be based on the assumption that firefighters are “good guys,” as seems to be the case in the Stockton incident. Firefighters who are doing their jobs well can use a 1A audit as an opportunity to demonstrate that professionalism, even under difficult conditions.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.