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A firefighter with a cell phone camera brings another image problem for the fire service. The story from Spalding County, Georgia, like the video itself, goes viral.

Some of our previous columns dealing with cameras and first responders: herehere, herehere, 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.

Click here if you are unable to see CBS Early Show video

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 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.


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  • Play4keeps

    We really need to address this videography issue before it is regulated. Valuable lessons and training are garnered from video. It seems that she suffered injuries incompatible to life and was already extricated and that they were documenting this. It could have been for the gore or to detail the extent that there was nothing that could be done to help. The parents are obviously in mourning and this is sad. One he started taking video, he would have been better if he didn’t open his mouth.

    Whether it’s naked firefighters cooking in the fire house or gore, we really need to use common sense, because it’s never looked at lightly or understood by the public. How about when we do something that others think is unsafe on the fireground and it’s on youtube? Next thing, the fire chief gets a thousand e-mails about how unsafe/unprofessional his/her department is.

    We can also learn from video and need to protect the right (yes, right) also. You need to set rules up but carefully, because if you so something like, no body parts to be filmed, does that mean you can’t film a wreak with a body in it?

    This is sad for the family but go to LiveLeak or the OGRISH websites. We see ravages of accidents and traumatic injuries all the time and military ops killing people pretty violently. Does the military regulate this or is it freedom of speech to document what happened and effectiveness of our operations?

  • Stuart

    I don’t believe freedom of speech is appropriate here. If you or I was a member of the media or just a joe blow citizen then we shouldn’t have access to such a scene to catch graphic images. If we did it would only be before Fire/EMS or Police showed up and escorted us back away from the scene.

    We, as members of a department or service, have access to the scene that no other person will have. As HIPPA regulated agencies, our departments are obligated by law to ensure that patient privacy rights are not violated. Our department has instituted a strict policy regarding video/images. Any image or video taken on a call that involves patients or patient care and is the result of access to the scene because of our job capacity becomes the property of the fire department to ensure it doesn’t get released. The phone or camera will be confiscated as well to ensure no other images/video can be distributed. Discplinary procedures can include suspension or termination.

    HIPPA violations can result in serious fines and even jail time. People must remember that fire fighters on the scene of a wreck or rescue that are part of patient care are HIPPA obligated agencies. You have no right to take identifying pictures or video and release it or show it to anyone.

  • Sk

    I can’t imagine the hurt these people are putting this family through. Isn’t it enough that they lost their daughter? These few insensitive people have cast a dark shadow on this fire department. Their shame should be immeasurable.

  • Brokenhearted

    Sorry for their loss but how is this any different from a reporter showing up first and publishing the photos?

  • Anon

    Brokenhearted, its different because a reporter doing it is just “sleazy”. A covered entity such as a firefighter doing it is a “legal cluster$%#$” to put it mildly.

  • Anonymous

    The difference between this guy and a reporter is he had a job to do on the scene. If he wanted to be reporter then get a job at the newspaper. I don’t think this guy was videoing for training purposes or documentation. The training excuse is way overused in the fire service. Some are legit but most of the time pictures and videos are taken for momentos.

  • Seasoned Veteran

    On duty firefighters should not be allowed to carry cell phones on the apparatus. You are at a scene to do a job, not talk on the phone or other phone issues. Period.

  • Stuart

    Police and reporters…and the general public are not HIPPA obligated agencies because they are not involved in patient care. They are not legally bound by HIPPA to protect patient privacy. Obviously, police would find themselves in a world of hurt if they did something such as this so that’s not a serious problem. No, news organization of any class would broadcast a dead person’s photo. By being so clueless…read as lack of proper training…this firefighter has opened himself, his department, and his city up to HUGE problems.

  • East of I-57

    Put down the helmet cams. Quit posting videos with the stupid heavy metal songs on youtube. Start worrying about doing your job. This is the stuff that is truly a bane to today’s fire service.

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  • DCFDmember

    Is this issue covered in HIPPA? That is a grey area as HIPPA is about protecting patient information, but it was intended to protect their medical records and their identity. The identity implied in HIPPA is in regards to their name, their medical condition, what hospital they were transported to, etc. Although most of us agree it should include their image, I don’t think the HIPPA law mentions that as this is not something that was common when the HIPPA law was written.

  • DCFDmember

    This is something that departments need to address, though they must be smart about it. Cell phones have become a way of life, and have also become a valuable tool in carrying out our jobs. So, saying you can’t have one while on duty is not the answer. Especially since cell phones are used very often for official business. Yes, we have radios, but it is much better to call someone by phone depending on what is to be discussed. There is more privacy using a phone than saying things over a radio channel. Plus, many cell phones are internet capable, so you can send/respond to an email via your government email account while away from the station.

    Most of this is just the new generation who go crazy over all of this new technology. I had a feeling issues like this were going to become more prevalent when everything today has a built in phone/video device and as the quality of those features continued to get better. How many times have we gone to a fire, accident, etc. and didn’t take any pictures/video. Today, the new generation can’t even get up and eat breakfast without documenting it in some way.

  • Supreme Court Justice Fred

    The reason there are rules and laws in this country are because at least 1 idiot can’t follow the rule of common sense.
    I’m sure there will be a knee jerk reaction like “Cell, phones, video cameras, ipods, and any other electronic devices capable of making the dept look bad are hereby forbidden and are the anti-christ from this day forward. So you can’t even own them in your own house, let alone at work. And if we catch you, you’re fired. Did you see that bush moving outside your bedroom window? We’re watching you and recording you. Thats right we can record you but you can’t record us. So there.”

    So this will be taken way too far. “Can’t we all just have a little common sense?”

  • chiefbobr

    This image-damaging story is a perfect example of why Fire Chiefs need to keep abreast of developing technology and have SOP’s in place accordingly. In 2005 while I was serving as Chief in a Florida department, a similar issue arose on the other side of the state. We realized the potential problem and put a task group together to conduct research and develop an SOP to cover this type of situation. The task group conducted their research and developed a draft SOP, which we then ran by the city’s lawyers for comment final approval. That procedure is relatively simple: no cell phone or other types of photography allowed on the scene of emergencies: period. We were a little ahead of the times on this type of issue, but then it’s always better to be proactive than reactive. It’s unfortunate that we have to have written regulations to govern what should be a common sense issue, but then you could put a person’s name on almost all written SOP’s in place today.

  • Doug

    HIPAA may, or may not, be a factor, but patient confidentiality and some…well, common sense…should come into play.

    What does making the video or taking the picture accomplish?

    It appears to me that it hasn’t accomplished anything positive.

    Was photo/videography part of his/her duties in the fire service?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with firefighters taking pictures or video on a call, but I don’t want it to come at the expense of their primary role in handling the situation.

    Any please, use some sense when shooting a scene (not just firefighters, but anyone with a camera).

  • mark

    Not to excuse the firefighter, for he truly used bad judgment, but what about the idiot that sent it to the victim’s father? He’s dumber than the firefighter who started this mess. Talk about a lack of common sense or even the ability to think.

    Regarding HIPAA, unless this FD is reimbursed for transport, they do not fall under HIPAA guidelines. There is another law (having a brain fart what it is), but it isn’t nearly as comprehensive as HIPAA.

    • dave statter


      The story I heard where it was discussed is that the father was contacted by his former brother-in-law who he had not heard from in 10 to 12 years. He wanted the dad to know it was out there and I believe dad asked it to be sent to him.


  • Stuart


    Section 160.103 defines health information in a manner that implies inclusion of patient photography:

    “Health information means any information, whether oral or recorded in any form or medium, that:

    (1) Is created or received by a health care provider, health plan, public health authority, employer, life insurer, school or university, or healthcare clearinghouse; and

    (2) Relates to the past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition of an individual; the provision of health care to an individual; or the past, present, or future payment for the provision of healthcare to an individual.”

    According to Section 164.514(b)(2), Implementation Specifications: Requirements for Deindentification of Protected Health Information, photographic and comparable images are explicitly noted as an item to be removed during de-identification in order for records to avoid the protected health information status and fall outside the regulations:

    “A covered entity may determine that health information is not individually identifiable health information only if:

    (2)(i) the following identifiers of the individual or of relatives, employers, or household members of the individual, are removed:

    (Q) full face photographic images and any comparable images”

  • Stuart

    The post I just completed is from the AHIMA library but the notation didn’t make it when I pasted it…just want to give proper credit.

  • Newsie

    Stuart needs to get a real legal opinion. HIPPA does not say a word about IMAGES. Its all about the medical and financial info. HIPPA does NOT take presidence over the 1st amendment…and while I do not condone anyone taking shots of gore…no matter, news or first responder, anyone trying to “confiscate” my camera without a court order is likely to need medical help themselves. ( for the record, i dont use shots of victims no matter how minor or serious the incident is)

    • dave statter


      Yes, you are correct that HIPAA (not HIPPA) does not trump the First Amendment. HIPAA does not control what the press or general public can do at the scene of an incident. Anyone who has tried to or has confiscated camera equipment by using HIPAA is likely to have some problems on their hands.

      Particularly since 9-11 lots of people have been hanging their hats on various laws and regulations they claim prohibit people from taking pictures in a public setting. In almost all of the cases those laws and regs don’t exist.

      In fact, here is an article published today about the Federal Protective Service (FPS) settling a suit by acknowledging they have no right to keep anyone from taking pictures of government buildings.

      As an aside, probably around 2004 and 2005 I did two stories on this issue in DC and had FPS make the same acknowledgement to us after officers harrassed a Channel 9 intern (and me) with a disposable camera at a number of government buildings. They claimed to be using the first story we broadcast to help train its officers. I guess that didn’t take.

      People will tell you a lot of things, including an FPS officer who pointed to government rules printed on the door of the Ronald Reagan building. Those rules were cited by many in the federal government we met up with while shooting those stories. But it turns out when you actually read the document it acknowledges the public and the press have the right to take such pictures both outside and inside the building. One of the funniest scenes was me reading it aloud to the FPS officer and the building manager of the Reagan Building telling the officer I am correct in my understanding of what it says.

      That said, I am not sure that a fire department banning an on-duty firefighter from having or using a camera at a secure scene will be seen as violating someone’s First Amendment rights. That’s an interesting concept that I would love to see some of our fire service legal minds discuss.


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  • ryan

    Very sorry to hear about your loss. As a career firefighter/paramedic I have to say that I/We use our cell phones for a myriad f reasons. (medical control,hospital,pt family members,etc…) Local departments need to have strict policies about cell phone use. A blanket law is not the answer

  • Stuart

    The above posting from me specifically references part of the HIPPA law as it involves photos and images that are identifiable patients are covered and are a violation of HIPPA. Anyone who is a covered entity who violates this section can put themselves and their department in a mess.

    If you and I worked for a hospital and we were in health information management. We took images on your cell phone of patients records because of something gross or funny. We were caught doing it. What do you think the hospital is going to do with your cell phone? Do you think that they are going to let you keep those images? Do you think they won’t take legal action to prevent you from exposing them to a legal mess?

    If the general public or press want to take a photo then more power to them. Hopefully, they have some class when they do it. If some fire fighter wants to take a picture of a fire in a building then I guess that depends on what the department has to say about it. However, if a patient care provider wants to take a picture of a patient in distress…then that is no different than taking medical records, releasing test results, or telling everyone that someone you all know has an embarrassing STD. Your 1st amendment right doesn’t protect you in those cases, and it isn’t going to protect you with the picture.

  • THendo

    I sympathize with the family, but a law being written to prevent cell phone on all EMS calls is not the answer! Cell phones are a tool that aid us in doing our job! As a matter of fact here in Las vegas, Nevada, EMS providers receive dispatch calls through text on their private cell phone. Even in Casinos our radios often don’t work to communicate with dispatch, in theses cases we use our cell phones. Another example of how we use our cell phones is to aid in calling family members when we have a John Doe on scene. We also take pictures to show the Trauma Center the Mechanism Action that was involved on the scene of a car accident, or for educational preposes. The Fire Department needs to come up with a strict policy on personal cell phone use, and these providers need to be made an example of, but taking such a valuable tool would hinder the rest of the EMS providers who use our cells phones properly.

  • DCFDmember


    Thanks for posting the info clarifying the question I had on the HIPPA law.

  • DCFDmember


    The HIPPA law only applies to health care providers and people who handle medical billing. It does not apply to the media.

  • DCFDmember

    dave statter

    The first amendment argument isn’t valid. Just as we have the first amendment right to free speech, there are rules which are legal that most fire departments have which restrict members from making official comments to the media while on duty. That role is usually restricted to chief officers and/or PIOs.

    When you are on duty, there are certain rules which you must abide by which would not violate your rights. Thus, if the FD says no pics of incident scenes unless you have permission, that is what you must do or face disciplinary actions.

    • dave statter

      Do your homework on your own department DCFDmember. There are at least three cases of members of your department who were disciplined for on duty incidents that they claimed were infringements on their rights to freedom of speech. I believe Local 36 went to court on all of them and prevailed. That I recall, there was one each in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I will look for the details.

      What I am saying is that as much as I (the non-lawyer) thinks a department might have a better case with the camera issue on-duty at a secure scene, I would rather hear the opinions of those with a better legal mind than mine (virtually anyone).


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  • Bill

    The family involved in this has my deapest sympathy. It truly is a bonehead move to take pictures/video of someone deceased in a car, then show it to everyone, or worse yet, put it on the internet.

    The parents were very distraught that they took the video, but didn’t both to check a pulse or remove her from the car. When did they start the video? Perhaps they had already checked for vital signs and had been on scene for some time. Once the EMS crew says the victem is deceased, they remain in the car. We don’t remove them until the coroner arrives and does his investigation. Was this video taken during the wait until he arrived? And unless there is a child in that car, I don’t get too upset at fatal accident scenes. I don’t intend for that to sound rude, cruel, uncaring or anything else, but after 34 years of doing this job, I’ve seen alot, and death doesn’t bother me.

    As someone above has already said, it often is necessary to use a cell phone to speak with someone while on scene. In this case, once the coroner was notified, he would like to speak with someone on scene before they respond. Also, you may or may not have radio reception in the area you’re in, but you may have cell phone service.

    Several medics in my area ARE taking pictures of vehicle accidents, or other traumatic scenes. Then, when arriving at the hospital, they can show the doctor in the emergency room exactly what happend and the condition they were found in, or how they were entrapped in the vehicle. The doctor will have a better idea of possible injuries if they see the damage done to the vehicle. The pictures can then be deleted, or stored with the incident report as another form of documentation. I’m sure the coroner would have been taking pictures as part of his investigation… as part of the documentation.

    My department routinely takes pictures at calls we respond to. We don’t however, take pictures with victims in the scene.

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