Smile - You May Be On Camera!

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Last year, my two teenagers were with me in the car on the night of the Fourth of July. In most communities, nighttime on the Fourth of July is busy with fires and EMS calls. As we were heading home, an emergency call came in for a house fire only a couple of blocks away. As one who does not shy away when an emergency is within close driving distance, I proceeded to the scene. From a block away, I could see there was a "working fire," as evidenced by the large glow in the night sky.

As I rounded the corner, I saw a two-story frame house fully involved in flames. Being the first emergency responder on the scene, I properly positioned my car so it would not block access for the engines and trucks that would be coming in. I also told my children to stay in the car. However, they could see the action from their vantage point.

After the fire was knocked down, I went back to my car to leave the scene. To my amazement, in the 15 minutes in which I had been out of the car, my children had clicked off many pictures on their camera phones and e-mailed them to numerous friends. It took just minutes for images from an emergency scene to be transmitted anywhere in the world.

How many times are you on an emergency scene in a public place and when you look around, somebody is snapping a picture with a camera phone? How many public buildings do you think you walk into on calls and security cameras are recording your movements? How many intersections do you think you drive through and some traffic-light camera captures your driving expertise? Many of us have seen the collision of two St. Louis, MO, fire apparatus at an intersection while both were running "urgent" to a house fire. It is clear from the video that one engine had a green light and the other had a red light. The video was rampant on the web among fire professionals soon after it was released. If you have not seen it, it can be found on YouTube.com.

Police officers have been using dashboard cameras to record traffic stops and other incidents, and firefighters are starting to do the same. Most, however, are not using dashboard cameras. Rather, they are placing video cameras on the dashboard of apparatus and upon arrival at a scene, they point the apparatus at the buildings on fire. The end result is the cameras capture all fireground activity. Again, go to YouTube.com and you can find many of them.

What about helmet cameras? For about $300, you can capture all the video and audio of a scene with a camera mounted on your fire helmet. They are usually waterproof and shock resistant, and they hold up well to heat. Videos from firefighter helmet cameras can be found on many websites. Just visit Google.com and search for "fire helmet cam" - they'll all pop up. Lots of fire station pranks have also been captured on video for posterity. You can also find these all over YouTube.com.

This brings us to the use of cameras and video equipment when treating patients. This adds a new dimension to the use of cameras and video recorders. The use of these devices and their ability to transmit images from emergency scenes can be good and bad for firefighters. It can be good if the pictures or videos validate that you did the right thing after someone complains or something goes wrong. But the opposite is also true. Do something wrong and as the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Patient confidentiality is the main reason why cameras and video recorders should not be used by firefighters when treating or transporting patients. In 2007, a paramedic found himself in trouble after posting pictures of accident victims on his MySpace page. His actions caught up with him when a man whose 16-year-old son was killed in a traffic accident was charged with assault after he beat up the paramedic for taking pictures of his deceased son. The paramedic denied taking any pictures of the deceased boy, but witnesses at the scene contended that he did. According to the father, the paramedic "crossed the line" when he took pictures of his dead son.

This incident, amid the tremendous proliferation of mobile and video phones that take pictures and growing concerns about patients' privacy rights, should raise alarm bells for fire departments. However, this is balanced by some fire departments that let employees take pictures and video of the scene so that they can show the emergency room staff the mechanism of injury.

Cameras and video recorders capable of capturing pictures and videos are becoming commonplace. There are advantages to this technology, but there are also opportunities for abuse. Because of potential abuses, firefighters should be fully aware of their departments' policies and their moral responsibilities when it comes to protecting patients and others from those who would exploit the technology for self-satisfaction or personal gain.

GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.

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