Is A Ban On Firefighter Helmet Cameras Really About Protecting Privacy?

San Francisco's fire chief says helmet cameras are a liability after firefighters filmed victims of the Asiana Airlines crash.
By @katierucke |
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    San Francisco's fire chief exclaimed firefighters' helmets must not have  helmet-mounted video cameras, after images from a battalion chief's Asiana Airlines crash. (Photo/Sheila Sund via Flickr)

    San Francisco’s fire chief declared firefighters’ helmets must not have helmet-mounted video cameras, after images from a battalion chief’s helmet of the Asiana Airlines crash. (Photo/Sheila Sund via Flickr)

    While members of the San Francisco Fire Department responded to the July 6 Asiana Airlines crash at the San Francisco airport, Battalion Chief Mark Johnson was recording the actions of the first responders with the use of his helmet camera. Though cameras are used to illustrate the true events of an incident, the city’s fire chief says they are a liability, since the firefighters don’t ask victims’ permission while filming them.

    Images from the video recording were published in local newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle, which sparked a discussion on whether the first responders acted appropriately: the recording included footage of Johnson’s fire truck running over and killing 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan, who was lying on the tarmac covered in fire-retardant foam.

    Johnson says he was never told that a person was lying on the ground, let alone a survivor, which he says is why he accidentally ran over the girl.

    The Asiana Airlines Flight 214, which was flying into San Francisco from Seoul, South Korea, had 307 passengers aboard the Boeing 777 aircraft. When the plane made its final descent into the Bay Area the landing gear and tail struck the seawall that projects into the San Francisco Bay, causing the front of the aircraft to separate from the tail section.

    Once the plane crashed into the ground, many of the passengers slid out of the plane using the emergency slides. However, some were trapped inside the burning plane. In all, 181 of the passengers were injured, 12 of those being critical injuries. Three people died, two at the crash scene — including Yuan — and one several days later at the hospital.

    While the San Francisco police, the San Mateo County coroner and the National Transportation Safety Board are reviewing the footage Johnson recorded, San Francisco’s Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White has since banned the city’s firefighters from using helmet-mounted video cameras, citing the recordings violate both firefighters’ and victims’ privacy.

    “There comes a time that privacy of the individual is paramount, of greater importance than having a video,” Hayes-White said, explaining her decision to ban the on-body cameras. “I think it is fairly clear,” she said, explaining that especially when it comes to medical care, “Without someone’s permission, videos are not to be taken.

    “There’s a lot of concern related to privacy rights and the city taping without a person being aware of it while responding to medical calls,” she said. “A lot of information is sensitive,” Hayes-White continued, adding that the city has no control over what a firefighter may decide to do with the footage they record while on duty, but the fire department would possibly be held liable for violating privacy laws.

    Hayes-White also hinted that Johnson “has been interviewed” about violating the fire department’s ban on cameras. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Hayes-White banned video cameras in “any department facility” in 2009. Last week she clarified that the ban included helmet cameras.

    Battalion Chief Kevin Smith, president of the Black Firefighters Association employee group that includes Johnson, said that the footage shot with helmet cameras has historically been used as a learning device to train new firefighters.

    Talking about the helmet-camera ban and Johnson’s possible violation of the department’s camera policy, Smith said, “The department seems more concerned with exposure and liability than training and improving efficiency.

    “Helmet cams are the wave of the future — they can be used to improve communication at incidents between firefighters and commanders. The department should develop a progressive policy to use this tool in a way that is beneficial and not simply restrict its use. We are public servants, we serve the public — why be secretive?”

    Anthony Tarricone, the attorney for Ye’s family — the teen who was run over by the fire truck — has also criticized the decision to ban the helmet cameras, saying “Why would anybody not want to know the truth?

    “What’s wrong with keeping people honest? That’s what the helmet cam did, in effect, in this case,” he said, adding that video recordings are increasingly important in helping reconstruct actions at disaster scenes. “The same way that airplanes have cockpit voice recorders and data recorders. The idea that the Fire Department wants to prevent these cameras from being used, it’s really disturbing.”


    Controversy over on-body cameras

    As Mint Press News previously reported, many first responders, specifically police officers, have recently considered adding on-body cameras to the list of daily equipment that would record audio and video footage. The Mesa, Ariz. police department is the first to have done so in the U.S. The goal is to help lessen the amount of police brutality cases and accusations.

    While the equipment is costly, the Mesa Police Department said the investment in the technology could have a quick payoff if it can help defend an officer against a lawsuit. Just one false arrest after a traffic incident in 2012 reportedly cost the city $62,500 to settle.

    Carlos Miller, who writes about recording the police on his website Photography is Not a Crime (PINAC), told Mint Press News earlier this year that he highly recommends officers wear cameras, and said he was surprised the technology has not already been implemented.

    “We should all want the truth,” Miller said, “so let the cameras come on.”

    While Miller supports the use of the cameras, he cautions that there would have to be requirements that officers wear the cameras for a majority of the day in order to address concerns that officers who act inappropriately would just destroy the camera or recorded footage.

    “There are a lot of instances where cops can turn the cameras on and off,” he said. “It creates a big issue because obviously we can expect cops to turn it off when they do things like go to the restroom, but there has to be policy in place that police leave the camera on while they are on duty.”

    While the cameras can be useful, they can also be kind of scary, according to Arin Pace, a lieutenant with the Jacksonville, Fla. Fire Department. He said that fire departments in at least two U.S. cities — Houston and Baltimore — have also banned the use of helmet cameras, but says that as long as a patient’s privacy is respected and firefights don’t record “grisly accident scenes,” the recordings can be very helpful.

    “It’s good to the watch the tape — like any pro football team, they watch the tape of how they did at the last game,” Pace said. “It’s better than a live fire exercise, because it’s a real fire. It’s invaluable. More departments are starting to embrace it — the trend is toward it as opposed to departments running away from it.”

    He added that when it comes to privacy, “Departments in general are careful about how information is handled, and for good reason. I think a lot of them would prefer we didn’t have Facebook and YouTube. For so long, they were able to feed the media what they wanted to feed them. I think a lot of them view the helmet cam thing as kind of scary.”

    But as Pace told the San Francisco Chronicle, the risk of being held liable for violating a person’s privacy is not a good enough reason to not use the cameras. “Liability doesn’t mean you can just keep things quiet and brush them under the rug,” he said, adding, “The camera doesn’t lie — it just shows what happened. In some cases, it shows something that isn’t very flattering. In those cases, what are you going to do?”

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