Some of our previous columns dealing with cameras and first responders: here, here, here, here, here and here
I think I'm not going out on a limb to say that a lot of fire chiefs around the country right now are looking closely at their department's camera policies trying to make sure what happened in Spalding County, Georgia isn't something they ever have to deal with. As we first reported yesterday morning, a cell phone video of a dead crash victim taken by a firefighter was passed around by text message until it made its way to the 23-year-old woman's father. Now, the story about what happened has hit a much wider audience and, like the recent "pay for spray" fire in Tennessee, is causing an image problem for the fire service.
According to WSB-TV's website, reporter Eric Philips spoke with the Spalding County fire chief who said "the firefighter is on investigatory leave with pay." The chief "referred Philips to the county attorney for more details" but "the county attorney had no comment."
The interim fire chief is Kenny West. WGCL reporter Tony McNary tracked down the chief and was able to get a brief interview (you can watch it here):
"Have you seen the video?" asked McNary.
"No," replied West.
"Was that protocol when he (the firefighter) did that?" McNary asked.
"No," stated West.
"Is this a veteran firefighter or someone new?" asked McNary
"He probably has eight or nine years or something like that," answered West.
West said the county does not condone that type of behavior. He said the county is investigating the incident.
According to reporter McNary the family of crash victim Dayna Kempson-Schacht has not heard from the chief or other Spalding County officials.
This one has really taken off with both NBC's Today Show (above) and the CBS Early Show (below) covering it. It is all over the Internet. There are many aspects of this story that provide valuable lessons for anyone in fire and EMS.
With the news traveling so quickly and getting so much attention nationwide I imagine there will be a lot of people in the public who will now look quite skeptically at any first responder with a camera. In interviews, the father of Dayna Kempson-Schacht said he believes there ought to be a law preventing such picture taken and thinks firefighters shouldn't be carrying cell phones (he points out they have radios).
We have been talking about the camera issue since STATter911.com began in 2007 (see the multiple links above). There are many other examples of intentional and unintentional distribution of scene photos that have made fire departments look pretty bad.
Even when a department thinks it has control of images shot by firefighters, that may not be the case. We told you early last year of the field amputation of a boy's arm at an oil rig in Oklahoma City. Pictures of this unusual rescue were taken by the fire department for training purposes. They were supposed to be on a secure server. They weren't. Today you can search now and find those images on a website devoted to gory photos.
One thing to keep in mind is that official department photos and video may be subject to freedom of information requests allowing the distribution to virtually anyone.
Besides the image issue this story causes for all firefighters, this incident has probably done great harm to the reputation of the Spalding County Fire Department. Could something have been done to help mitigate the impact this story is having on how the public perceives the firefighters of Spalding County?
The easiest way to answer this is to tell you what my general advice would be in situations like this one. If a citizen calls you and you know right-away your department has done them wrong, apologize and let the citizen now how you are correcting this problem.
If this is a serious issue that involves your department's reputation, tell the story yourself. Don't wait for the reporters to come knocking. Release all the details you possibly can and what your department is doing to make sure this isn't going to happen again. A fire chief needs to be out in front of these reputation issues or there is great risk the chief and the department will be buried by it.
Too often, either because of ego, denial, lawyers, mayors or many other reasons, a department drags a story like this on for days and weeks and dies a death by a thousand cuts. By waiting to publicly come clean and apologize you often will do great harm to your organization.