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Prevent the erosion of public trust from photo-related controversies

Two simple ways fire departments can help members understand proper actions related to taking and sharing incident photos


The Los Angeles County Sheriff has confirmed that eight deputies allegedly took or shared graphic photos of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene when they responded to that incident in late-January.

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The Los Angeles County Sheriff has confirmed that eight deputies allegedly took or shared graphic photos of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene when they responded to that incident in late-January. The department did not launch a formal inquiry and the deputies have not been disciplined, the department says, to avoid drawing attention to the graphic images. The photos have reportedly been deleted.

According to the Associated Press, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has a policy against taking and sharing crime scene photos, but it doesn’t apply to accident scenes. The department does not have a specific policy about taking photographs on personal cellphones. The sheriff stated that he plans to develop such a policy and would also like to see a state law making it illegal to take unauthorized photos of accident scenes depicting dead bodies.

Such a law does exist in New Jersey. Passed in 2012, the law prohibits the state’s first responders from taking and sharing pictures or videos of accident victims without their consent. Under the law, “first responder” means a law enforcement officer, paid or volunteer firefighter, or other paid or volunteer person who has been trained to provide emergency medical first response services in a program recognized by the Commissioner of Health and Senior Services.

The New Jersey law was created in response to an incident in 2009, when a volunteer first responder took a picture of a driver who was killed in an auto accident. That person then posted the photo from the accident scene on Facebook before the victim’s family was made aware of the death. The law is also called “Cathy’s Law,” after Cathy Bates, the driver killed in that 2009 crash.

Fight the urge to document and share everything

Firefighters and other first responders see a lot of things that most people in the community can hardly imagine. They run on gory, sad or ridiculous calls that lend themselves to storytelling after the fact. At some point, most first responders will also come into contact with someone famous as a result of their work.

Technology has changed everything when it comes to such calls. Before smartphones and social media, a firefighter might share a story with the oncoming crew about a famous person who was injured in an accident the night before, and that would be as far as it would go. But now there is a perceived need to document and share everything, and this practice can undermine the essential mission that first responders represent.

Firefighters carry their personal phones with them everywhere, and often use them to take pictures at emergency scenes. This practice can cause all kinds of problems, as members of the public wonder why a fire officer was taking selfies instead of fighting the fire in their home.

But imagine being a family member of someone who has just tragically died, and the way you find out about this loss is because some stranger shares a photo of your dead child on social media. And then you find out the source of that photo was one of the emergency workers at the scene who was sworn to help and protect those who had suffered harm.

Serving and protecting does not mean just extricating a victim or starting an IV. It means protecting that person and their loved ones from further harm. It means embracing and never violating the implicit relationship of trust that all first responders have with the public.

Trust is the foundation of all emergency service. If trust is broken, people will not truthfully answer questions or cooperate with action taken at the scene. They may not even call for help when they need it. Violating privacy and confidentiality are sure ways to critically damage trust with the community.

Once that trust is damaged by one person in one situation, the effects can be far-reaching. The public does not see firefighters as individuals but rather as part of a whole “fire service.” If one firefighter behaves badly or undercuts professional trust, members of the community are likely to see it as “the fire department” having done so.

Prevent erosion of public trust

There are two ways to prevent this kind of damage.

1. Policy: The first is to establish clear policies about who can take photos at emergency scenes and of what subjects, and how those photos may be shared. Many fire departments still don’t have such policies in place, and that is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately.

When developing and enforcing policies, it is important to emphasize that they apply equally to everyone. All people should be treated with the same consideration and professionalism. HIPAA laws still apply to famous people. No distinctions should be made because someone’s name might have been in the headlines the week before.

2. Training: Developing good policies is essential but not enough in itself. People need to understand not only what to do, but why it is important to behave in certain ways. They need to feel a personal stake in what they do and not just pay lip service to it.

One way to increase this kind of awareness is to do training using actual situations where firefighters have made better and worse choices concerning scene security and confidentiality. Put your firefighters in situations others have faced and ask them to make decisions. Allow for discussion and differences of opinion as crews come to a consensus on what is the right thing to do.

Protect those in our care

Social media and technology have changed standards and expectations about privacy in much of our daily lives, but those factors cannot change how first responders protect those in their care during emergency response. Violations of trust carry far wider repercussions for all first responders than just those involved in any given incident.

Bonus policy point from the Lexipol team: As Willing notes, fire departments need clear policies about who can take photos at emergency scenes and of what subjects, and how those photos may be shared. A policy should cover many topics: legal ownership of photos and electronic images, the parameters for the types of incidents, subjects and activities that may be photographed or electronically imaged, and restrictions on the use of such photographs and electronic images. For example, Lexipol’s Photography and Electronic Imaging Policy, part of its comprehensive Fire Policies and Training solution, permits the documentation of non-incident department training events, exercises, lectures, classes or activities, and all fire academy-related activities; however, it prohibits taking or transmitting incident photos for personal purposes.

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.