Helmet Cameras Put Under Microscope

Over the last few years, helmet cameras have been adopted by countless members of the fire service as a tool to capture their heroics on film, but not everyone is entertained.

More departments are banning the use of photography and video equipment while on duty, while others are making it clear that their policies forbidding the devices still stand.

This past July, the Houston Fire Department released a policy banning such recording devices -- including helmet cameras. Just last month, the Baltimore City Fire Department reiterated its rule in a memo distributed to employees.

Wake County, N.C. Public Safety Director John Rukavina -- who holds a law degree from the University of Minnesota School of Law -- believes that the key for departments is having control.

"Be very clear in your policies with what you are allowed to do," he told Firehouse.com while in attendance at the annual VCOS symposium in Clearwater, Fla., last week.

"For training purposes, they are great," he said. "The question becomes, how do you regulate it?"

He noted that things can be done by departments to avoid an outright ban of recording devices. "You can provide the helmet cameras and cell phone cameras and control those options."

He said departments do have a reason to be concerned. In the world of YouTube and Facebook, videos and pictures make their way through the Internet and to the public quicker than ever before. HIPAA laws can be broken and the image of the department can be threatened by certain types of videos, Rukavina said.

In 2007, such an incident occurred when a helmet camera video taken by a member of the all-volunteer Kentland, Md. Fire Company was praised by news stations that ran the footage, but was condemned by the department that oversees it.

The footage showed members of the fire company exit the fire truck and enter a smoke-filled house as they proceeded to carry a 63-year-old disabled man out alive. The rescued man died of his injuries after the news stations had already aired the video.

Officials from the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department said Firefighter Joe Brown's decision to strap the self-bought camera to his helmet was unauthorized.

The day after the video came out, the department issued a statement urging the stations to discontinue broadcast of the footage over the air and on the Internet.

"The release of this video and the media coverage demonstrated a lack of compassion and sensitivity for the family of the deceased," the statement read. "These actions are extremely unethical and unprofessional."

Rukavina said in this case the policies weren't known along with the fact that the firefighter believed that by recording the video, it became his.

"Anything people generated should belong to the department."

He said helmet camera videos can be a tremendous learning tool, but that some firefighters are taking advantage of the technology for their personal gain. Instead of recording the videos to help teach fellow firefighters, he said they are posting them on sites like YouTube to gain fame.

"They are not doing it to inform, they are doing it to one-up the other guy," he said. "It's just another example of 21st century technology and its effect on the fire service."