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Thread: What is the legal boundries regarding photographing fire scenes?

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    Default What is the legal boundries regarding photographing fire scenes?

    Hello my name is Jonathan Kerr.

    I currently made a website for my Fire Department where we will post our runs, news, community events etc. One of the features we would hope to have would be to have a picture of each fire scene we go to on the site. My question is, is it legal to take pictures of fire scenes and post them online? What are the rules to this? Thanks.


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    Forum Member sfd1992's Avatar
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    It's legal as a member of the public to photograph fire or other emergency scenes, as long as you are in an area you are legally allowed to be. Stay outside the "yellow tape", and off of private property and you're fine.

    If you are doing it as a member of the FD, there are/should be policies in place that govern what/where/when/how you can take photos, and what you can do with them. That's a bigger issue than the legal issues of photography as a private citizen.

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    I am a firefighter and as soon as the website is up I will be the webmaster posting everything. Our department has nothing in our SOP about photographs. We as a fire department are confirming if this is legal or not. So to confirm, we can take and post pictures of house fires and accidents as long as no faces other than the firefighters, and no license plates are in the photos?

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    Social media (Facebook) has caused many departments to rethink their SOPs on this kind of thing. To my knowledge there isn't a whole lot of law involved beyond patients rights (HIPPA) and interferring with an ongoing investigation.

    It is really employer policy that causes most people problems, as an employee they are paying you to do a job, and they have a lot of control over how you do that. This is really something you should be going over with your chief and if it is going on the department website maybe the city / county / fire district (as appropriate) legal people.

    An added complication can be copyrights, some employers claim copyright of photos taken by an on duty employee.

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    An added complication can be copyrights, some employers claim copyright of photos taken by an on duty employee.
    I had been called in early for an incident where I was assigned to be the Department's PIO. I had my camera with me and took a few photographs of the District's hazmat team in action at the incident, with the sole purpose of using the photos as part of a presentation for training. I had downloaded the pics into a file on the computer at the firehouse.

    The incident resulted in litigation, my pictures were introduced as evidence on both sides of the suit. Since I was on duty as a result of the call in and stored the pics on one of the fire station's computers, therefore the photos were deemed to be city property .
    Last edited by DeputyChiefGonzo; 08-12-2012 at 09:26 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by kerrjon View Post
    We as a fire department are confirming if this is legal or not.
    There is only one person who can confirm this for you- Your department's solicitor.

    That being said, I have been a fire photographer for 20+ years, and consider myself somewhat "familiar" with the legalities of taking pictures of incidents. As a Fire Photographer responding to the incident of my own free will, I am free to take pictures of anything, at any incident at any time, including faces of patients or licens plates or anything else when I am standing on any public right-of-way such as a sidewalk or a publci street. I may also take pictures from private property with the property owner's permission.

    On the other hand, members of any responding agency who are unifomed and/or on-duty (this includes volunteers) are bound to all the legalities of HIPAA. Some on here can and will say that they are not bound to HIPAA, but it has been fought in court several times over and has been determined to fall under the act. Additionally, there have been numerous cases of photos being published on webpages that infurated both families and victims who eventually filed suit against owners of the webpages (almost always responding agencies who settled rather than risk a lenghy and expensive trial.)

    Additionally, as Gonzo stated if phots are taken by a responding member on duty, photos are property of the agency, hence the community, and are property of such; and can be obtained through right-to-know acts. This includes volunteer agencies who are separate incorporations of the communities they serve, it has been determined in courts that as they are agents of the community, they are bound by the right-to-know acts. (Many many volunteer agencies like those here in Pennsylvania are Corporations completely seperated from the communities they serve and are under "contract" to provide fire protection.)

    If you are considering doing this, I urge you to contact your solicitor, and have him/her determine the best course of action as well as a social media policy for your members. There are numerous resources out there for fire department social media policies that should be reviewed and researched.
    "Loyalty Above all Else. Except Honor."

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    I suggest you go read some of Curt Varone's Firelaw blog, he answers a lot of questions on the blog and offers classes on the subject.

    Be careful-many depts, including mine-forbid any picture taking while on duty that is not approved by the chief and taken with dept equipment. I am putting together an argument against ours, as it is so restrictive that in five years we will not have a pictorial record of anything we did.

    Google is your friend, type in "Fire department image policies" and you will find a wealth of info.

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    In addition to the HIPAA angle, I'd review photos before posting for questionable or unsafe acts or procedures by firefighters. You should try to use photos that are going to give your dept. good PR. Maybe a small committee of FF's and the Chief should review photos before they are posted, you don't want to shoot yourselves in the foot posting something that makes you look bad.

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    My Chief also does not know for sure what is legal when it comes to taking photos, everything I do, I do at his request. And our fire board is also not knowledgeable about this. I work very closely with my Chief because he is also my brother, as I have stated before, we have no policy's regarding photographs. That being said, could you please sum it up and confirm if there are any state or federal law against the taking of pictures and posting them online of fire scenes and 10-50's? And wither or not it's legal to take faces and license plates or not, we still will not do that to avoid misunderstandings and disputes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kerrjon View Post
    That being said, could you please sum it up and confirm if there are any state or federal law against the taking of pictures and posting them online of fire scenes and 10-50's? And wither or not it's legal to take faces and license plates or not, we still will not do that to avoid misunderstandings and disputes.
    Question for you: Do you really want to take the word of a bunch of firehouse lawyers on here for something that could turn around and bite you in the azz later on if you screw up- You really need to consult with your Dept's attorney on this one, not with a bunch of internet firehouse kitchen lawyers.
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    Personally I am pretty sure it's legal. Especially after viewing this thread: http://www.firehouse.com/forums/t72442/ (Legality of photographing fires?)

    But yes, on this note since I am 99% sure it is legal, I will take your guy's confirmation on this.

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    I'm not an internet firehouse kitchen lawyer, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn once...
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    Quote Originally Posted by kerrjon View Post
    Personally I am pretty sure it's legal. Especially after viewing this thread: http://www.firehouse.com/forums/t72442/ (Legality of photographing fires?)

    But yes, on this note since I am 99% sure it is legal, I will take your guy's confirmation on this.
    OK, obviously you are not "getting" it.

    Any Joe Schmo off the street can take a picture. A plumber, a lawyer, a hooker, or a Deputy Fire Chief (not a member of your department) who does car detailing on the side, a bus driver, a mechanic, a housewife.......Or a firefighter from another jurisdiction who's agency was NOT dispatched to the incident and comes of his own free will. All of these people can take all the pictures they want to of your incident from a public right of way, private property or even from within your fire lines if they have permission.

    Now, once a person, who is a unifomed and/or on-duty member of a bonafide emergency response agency that is operating on the scene starts snapping pictures, the whole bag of doughnuts changes. Many states (and courts) have differing views on what is legal and what is not. The photos could be subject to lawsuits, seizure (with proper warrants) or even to right-to-know requests. This is why it is critical that your attorney be consulted.
    "Loyalty Above all Else. Except Honor."

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    a Deputy Fire Chief (not a member of your department) who does car detailing on the side
    I think I know that guy....
    Lewiston2FF, Trkco1 and ATFDFF like this.
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    Quote Originally Posted by FWDbuff View Post
    On the other hand, members of any responding agency who are unifomed and/or on-duty (this includes volunteers) are bound to all the legalities of HIPAA. Some on here can and will say that they are not bound to HIPAA, but it has been fought in court several times over and has been determined to fall under the act. Additionally, there have been numerous cases of photos being published on webpages that infurated both families and victims who eventually filed suit against owners of the webpages (almost always responding agencies who settled rather than risk a lenghy and expensive trial.)
    .
    I have to ask - but do you have any cites, references, or specifics on any FD that has been sued in court over HIPAA on any account?

    Further, any cites, references, or specifics on any FD that has been sued in court over HIPAA over pictures at the scene?

    Finally, I agree with you - the departments attorney should be the source for the OP's information.

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    HIPAA only covers entities that collect and transmit health insurance information electronically. If there are court cases indicating otherwise, I'd be very interested in seeing it because it would go against all I've seen.

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    It really isn't that complicated.

    Don't take pictures of people. Take flame/smoke shots and towtruck shots and you'll be all good.
    I am now a past chief and the views, opinions, and comments are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for any department or in any official capacity. Although, they would be smart to listen to me.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ChiefKN View Post
    It really isn't that complicated.

    Don't take pictures of people. Take flame/smoke shots and towtruck shots and you'll be all good.
    ...and dong shots..take plenty of dong shots.
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    After pictures of a large abandoned mill fire taken from the bucket of the aerial showed up on an unofficial fire department website, the chief of that career-staffed department decreed that no pictures would be taken on his fireground(s) by anyone who was there by virtue of having been dispatched. Copies of the policy were distributed in writing to every department in the county (several surrounding volunteer departments were also at the fire).

    Of course, this only applies to those firefighters "inside the tape." If you're on the outside, shoot away.

    Ironically, the same chief had earlier used a picture I took of one of his fires for an article in Firehouse. Had the policy been in place at the time, I couldn't have taken the picture...

    This is also a good reason to get the tape up early. We had a real go-getter of a news photog here for a while who often hit a scene before the trucks. Got some great shots, though...

    As for the original question - I would opine that after scrutinizing each image for stuff that shouldn't be in such pictures (stupid/unsafe actions, etc), and ensuring that it's unlikely that there will be legal action regarding the incident (you oftimes know that before you leave the scene), publish away. It's probably good to have someone else take a look, too, just in case you missed the guy with the beer can in his hand...

    We had a problem here for a while with cell phone images of incidents being published on the website of a local news aggregator. The website owner did (and still does) solicit such submissions, but the number has dropped off. I'm sure some were submitted by overzealous first responders. The biggest problem was showing images of vehicles involved in collisions before any notifications could be made, raising the possibility that a family member might see a loved one's vehicle all busted to bumpkus as their first knowledge of the incident.
    Opinions my own. Standard disclaimers apply.

    Everyone goes home. Safety begins with you.

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    Article of interest, and I would be surprised if this is the first state level law regarding some sort of fire scene and photography or videoing.


    http://www.firehouse.com/news/107588...victims-photos

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