The Fire Scene: Is It Time for Helmet Cams?

Nov. 14, 2022
John J. Salka Jr. points out that the benefits that helmet cam video recordings outweigh the few arguments that can be made against the technology.

The debate over body cams for police officers is all but over. Whether you believe that or not, several issues and realities have become crystal clear. The use of body cams is so routine now that they are hardly noticed and rarely debated, and they have brought an element of clarity to hundreds of police investigations and probably thousands of civilian complaints.

So, what is the problem with helmet cams or some similar recording device for firefighters? Many fire departments restrict or completely outlaw the use of helmet cams by firefighters and cite that they are used improperly or violate someone’s privacy. Well, assuming that those issues are true, if a fire department wanted to, it could design and purchase helmet cams for every firefighter and officer and deny those members access to the recordings. That solves the improper use/violating privacy issues and leaves us with a great tool that can be used to help us to do our jobs.

Let’s take a look at the positive uses of helmet cams that are issued and regulated by a fire department.

Recordings’ value

The first obvious benefit is that all members, officers and firefighters will have their actions recorded at every incident. If 10 people work a one-room house fire, there will be 10 perspectives to look at. These recordings can be used for:

  • Post-fire discussions and critiques. Yes, currently, all members can be asked what they did and how operations went, but the helmet cam will show us.
  • Investigation of a serious injury to a member. Again, we can interview members who were at or near an incident where a firefighter was critically injured, but with a helmet cam on every helmet, a video record will exist. Also, consider this: A member is found unconscious or injured by themselves with no witnesses. A review of the helmet cam will disclose conditions around the member and very likely what exactly happened.
  • A firefighter LODD. The causes or circumstances around many firefighter line-of-duty deaths remain a mystery even when excellent investigations are conducted by the deceased member’s department or by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Imagine the wealth of information that a helmet cam can contribute to such an investigation. Imagine the positive effect that will have on the results of the investigation.
  • An audio record of an incident. Many departments don’t have the capability to have the fireground radio frequency recorded. With a helmet cam on every helmet at every operation, a clear and time-marked record of every transmission will be made. That can be used for training, for operational evaluations, and for post-fire discussions and investigations. Was a mayday transmitted? Did anyone on scene respond to it? Did the chief order everyone out of the building? Did the firefighter who called for help say, for example, the “fourth” or “fifth” floor? All of these questions and more can be answered after a careful review of the audio element of the recording.

For training

Training is another great opportunity for the helmet cam. It could provide a clear and unbiased record of how individual firefighters, company units or even full fireground assignments perform.

Following a training evolution at the training academy or even out at a donated building that’s used for training, the training staff can review the performance of units and provide immediate feedback and evaluation. If a time element is being evaluated, there’s no need to use a stopwatch or other timing device, because the helmet cam can have the time displayed and recorded for every activity that it captures.

Embrace the change

Every time that I hear a story about a department that restricts or outlaws the use of helmet cams, I shake my head. Yes, the unregulated use of these recording devices can cause problems for the firefighter who uses it or the department that the individual works for. Yes, privacy issues and legal restrictions also might affect this matter. However, the benefits that are outlined above certainly appear to outweigh the negatives when a department-owned device is used. In fact, those benefits might be tremendous for the American fire service as a whole.

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