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How to avoid firefighter photo firestorms

Simple steps to evade controversy related to photos, fireground scenes and social media


Social media is a fact of life. You may not like the changes it has brought with it, but you have to accept the reality of those changes.

Photo/Detroit Fire Incidents Page

A good friend of mine who is a retired fire chief has a photograph he values highly displayed on his office wall. In the picture, he is sitting on a couch with four firefighters in bunker gear, and behind them is a building engulfed in flames. The five of them are smiling. The photo was a gift for my friend’s retirement in 2005.

I remembered that photo this week when I became aware of the Detroit firefighters who posed for a similar photo recently, also for the purpose of honoring a retiring colleague. But instead of creating a valued keepsake for their coworker, they created a firestorm of controversy.

The photo went viral. The story of the posing firefighters was covered by national and fire service media. An investigation ensued, which resulted in the fire commissioner saying that “all involved will be held accountable.”

Why did one of these incidents end without incident and one with serious repercussions? There are two critical differences between these two situations.

1. Training fire vs. working fire

First, my friend’s photo was taken at a training fire, in front of an abandoned shed that had been donated to the fire department for the purpose of burning. The shed was in an isolated location with no other buildings or people around.

The Detroit photograph was taken at a working fire on New Year’s Eve. The house on fire was unoccupied, but, according to the owners, was in the process of renovation. The house was in an established neighborhood.

The firefighters had been called on an emergency response to extinguish the fire. They made an initial effort to do so but determined that the fire was too involved for safe interior attack. Once the fire went defensive, they decided to take the picture to honor their retiring battalion chief.

2. Social media extends reach

The second factor is social media. The Detroit photograph was taken in 2020 and immediately shared on social media. My friend’s photo was taken in 2004 and shared only with those who were in it. Social media was simply not a factor 16 years ago.

Social media has changed everything when it comes to documenting actions on the job. When a photo is taken, the expectation is that it will be shared widely. There is no way to really control how photos put on social media will be distributed once they are posted. You must assume they will be seen by anyone and everyone, including the owners of the property and their neighbors, in addition to the fire commissioner, the city council, and pretty much anyone else.

If my friend’s photo had been taken today, it would almost certainly be shared on social media, and despite the fact that it depicted firefighters on a training incident with no danger to life or property, those present might still have some explaining to do to justify why it was taken and prove that it did not violate any professional standards.

3. Tips for avoiding photo firestorms

Pretty much everyone has a phone with a camera, and many firefighters have their phones with them all the time at work, including on emergency response. Quite a few of those firefighters use their cameras when responding to emergency scenes, sometimes just to document the incident and sometimes for the purpose of taking staged photos. It may be so common for some that they don’t think anything of it; it’s just normal. So normal that even those in top leadership positions do it, as is evidenced by photos that have surfaced of Detroit fire commissioners posing for photos at fire scenes. But as this recent incident and many others have demonstrated, there are real problems that can result from this practice.

The safest course of action when it comes to taking personal photos at emergency scenes is simple: Just don’t do it. Leave your phone behind at the station when you respond and give your full attention to the work when you are on scene. Unless you have a kid on a list for an organ transplant, there isn’t much that can’t wait until you return to station.

But realistically, many firefighters will take their phones with them on emergency response. And some of those firefighters will take pictures documenting the event. If you are one of those people, the next best course of action is to resist plastering those photos all over social media once you return from the call. Once a photo is on social media, you cannot control the narrative about it, regardless of what the original intention or circumstances of the photo were.

If you need to brag about the awesome fire you responded to this week, use official department or news photos to illustrate your post, and cite the source. In that way, you will never be called to account for why you were taking personal photos when you should have been searching for grandpa in the burning building.

4. Supervisors, do your part, too

Social media is a fact of life. You may not like the changes it has brought with it, but you have to accept the reality of those changes. You can’t expect to engage in social media through the posting of workplace photographs, but then be surprised when that action carries potential consequences with it.

One more thing. The Detroit fire commissioner included this statement in the report following the investigation of the photograph: “Supervisors and above will receive a greater degree of disciplinary accountability.”

When it comes to professionalism in the fire service, those in supervisory positions must take a leadership role by establishing clear expectations, holding people accountable, and perhaps most importantly, by setting a good example. And this starts from the top of any organization.

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.
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