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Climbers, Kayakers, and Skydivers Wear Helmet Cameras -- Why Not Firefighters?

The assistant fire chief thinks it would be great, for training purposes, to have videos of firefighters responding to actual situations – and the department might even get video showing a firefighter saving someone's life. Helmet camera videos can be great for training purposes and for reviewing possible modifications to procedures, but they can also cause problems.

Helmetcam videos may provide evidence of negligence if they show that improper procedures were followed, resulting in injuries or deaths of firefighters or members of the public.

And then there’s the issue that we all love to wrestle with: those images are public records that will need to be retained for the required length of time and produced upon public request if there are no applicable exemptions or prohibitions to disclosure. You cannot just review the video after the event and decide whether to keep or delete the images.

And what if those helmet cameras are running when fire personnel are assisting with a medical emergency, such as a multi-car pileup on the highway, or a response to a serious criminal assault or a suicide? The videos are now a record of how emergency personnel responded and provided care and are the type of evidence lawyers love when they are later in court arguing over exactly what happened in a lawsuit over injuries. What about the privacy rights of medical patients or crime victims?

Could the use of helmet cameras distract firefighting personnel from their tasks or possibly get in the way as they negotiate a burning structure?

If your fire department does not yet have a policy regarding the use of video cameras or still cameras, should it? When a firefighter records images at the scene of an emergency with his personal smart phone, who owns the images? Who needs to authorize disclosure of images recorded at the scene of a fire? Some jurisdictions prohibit all camera use by firefighting personnel at the scene of an emergency response – and there are good reasons.

What sounds like a departmental decision is really an issue that needs to be thoroughly reviewed by the jurisdiction’s administration, legal counsel, and insurer. Let’s think this through.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Jim Doherty

Jim had over 24 years of experience researching and responding to varied legal questions at MRSC. He had special expertise in transmission pipeline planning issues, as well as the issues surrounding medical and recreational marijuana. He is now retired.