Some SF firefighters could be allowed to record response scenes 

click to enlarge Firefighters and paramedics at the scene of the Asiana Airlines crash last year had personal video recorders that captured footage of a firetruck running over a survivor. - MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP File photo
  • Firefighters and paramedics at the scene of the Asiana Airlines crash last year had personal video recorders that captured footage of a firetruck running over a survivor.

Trained and authorized San Francisco firefighters might be allowed to wear portable cameras while in the field if an update to department policy is approved.

An unknown number of firefighters and paramedics wore cameras on their helmets before last summer's Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport, officials with the San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 union said.

They did so in violation of Fire Department policy that has always prohibited recording devices -- which would include the camera on a smartphone -- at the workplace.

Following the July 6, 2013, airliner crash and subsequent response -- when a battalion chief's helmet camera filmed a firetruck running over a crash survivor (footage was immediately turned into the department) -- Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White moved to ban helmet cameras outright.

However, helmet-mounted or other cameras at fire scenes may soon return, with authorized firefighters with specific permission from the chief doing the recording so that the footage can be used for training purposes.

The Fire Department used to have a full-time member in the Division of Training who filmed the scene of fires, which was "an invaluable training tool," Deputy Chief Mark Gonzalez said.

Footage also aided fire investigators, though the practice of on-scene video ended due to budget constraints.

In the future, firefighters doing recording would need specific clearance from the chief, Hayes-White told the Fire Commission last month. Firefighters will also likely be barred from sharing photos or video through social media, Hayes-White said.

The social-media ban would cut down on liability and make it less likely that firefighters would, inadvertently or not, commit a violation of someone's privacy.

"We see a lot of things that the average public person does not," Hayes-White told the commission. "There are concerns, frankly, about someone sharing information that shouldn't be shared."

It's not immediately clear how the recording ban would apply to smartphones or whether the footage would be publicly available.

The department is "in the process of evaluating all of that," Hayes-White said.

Despite widespread concern for privacy in the digital age, there is support for police officers to be equipped with chest-mounted cameras to record interactions with citizens. There doesn't appear to be the same demand for firefighters to have their actions recorded.

No other major U.S. fire department allows members to wear personal cameras to record on-the-job actions for personal reasons, said Tom O'Connor, president of the Local 798 union.

"I'm all for people not posting while they're at work," he said Monday. "We understand the public's right to privacy."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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