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Instant replay for the fire service

Fire-scene video can be a great teaching tool, but one that is filled with peril

It seems like everywhere you turn there is an amazing video of a fire response, no matter if it is good or bad. The availability of helmet cams makes a real point of view available for review and learning.

Most times the video is “ooo’d” and “aah’d” at, but is it used effectively as a quality-improvement tool? There are ways that every service can use videos effectively and avoid the common pitfalls.

Video recording of events have been around since the invention of the handheld camera. It was not until the Internet age that videos became regularly available to the public.

Now anyone with a cell phone can take a video of a scene and have it posted on YouTube within minutes. This can air your dirty laundry in public as it becomes hard to control videos that are posted online.

Depending on the video, there may also be HIPAA and privacy concerns (or even legal implications). You may not be able to control video shot by spectators, but it is crucial to control what video is taken department members and how it is used.

Chain of custody
The first step is to outline exactly who is allowed to record events along with what happens to the recording. The best bet is to always have only one designated camera operator on scene, even if that role rotates among members.

That person then becomes responsible for the chain of custody of the video and is responsible if the video gets out. A camera operator with this level of responsibility is needed even for unmanned or helmet cameras.

Your camera operator needs to understand what can and cannot be shot, and also how to immediately secure the videos. Videos that are released to the public — including on sites like Flashover TV — should only be with approval of the chief or the board.

Off button for med runs
Any video that includes EMS or direct patient care must be handled with a completely different set of rules. In this case you need legal advice as HIPAA regulations are very restrictive.

Peer review of videos can be accomplished with appropriate structure, but the videos have to be handled very carefully. This includes special regulations for encryption, destruction, consent and patient notification.

For most departments, the bottom line is that the amount of work needed to video medical calls may result in more work then they are worth. In fact, many departments have policies that expressly forbid all video, pictures and audio recording of medical scenes for this reason.

Fire scenes, without patient impact, may be a bit easier to video and more fruitful. For these cases, some departments have mounted video equipment on their apparatus, helmets or other equipment to provide multiple views of a scene.

There are still privacy concerns, especially if video is taken inside someone’s home. What is visible from the street is often considered public. However, check with your attorney on what is required.

Making it count
Once you have the video, the question is, what to do with it? The natural inclination in the fire service is to use it to Monday morning quarterback.

Our debriefings in the fire service tend to focus on finger pointing, and videos can make this worse. As adults we are naturally hard on ourselves, and watching a video can be extremely difficult.

The goal of a video review is to identify both what went well and what could go better. It is not about what John did; it is about the overall system, response and results.

How you review the first video will set the tone for all future reviews. This includes both the actual debriefing and what is done with the video afterwards.

The best bet for everyone involved is to review the video as a group and immediately delete it. Keeping a video library is a good idea, but the last thing you want is a blooper reel showing up online.

Everyone needs to feel comfortable to review their own practice and know that their failures are not going to be criticized in public. This is especially true in the volunteer service.

There is a place for a video reel of pride. If you are going to keep video, only keep selected clips that show the positive acts of members and things you would have no problem showing to the public.

A reel of pride can help recruit new members and allow existing members to show their families what they do. Any video release like this needs to be tightly controlled; you should have a signed video release consent form from everyone in the video.

Video is here to stay. It is our place to determine how and when it will be used. We plan everything we can, and this is just another aspect. A bit of planning on both the recording and review can save a department from embarrassment and provide a source of growth.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’
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