Caught on Camera


Recently, a video of a couple of famous recording artists having a little fight in an elevator received tremendous media coverage. Although it can be debated that there was way too much time spent on this, it obviously gave the media something to report that caught enough attention of the public to help ratings. I don’t think anyone paying attention to the news could avoid hearing about this incident. A picture says a thousand words, and videos may say more. Though I doubt this little event has much impact on the individuals involved, it does offer a reminder that no matter where you are in public, there is the potential to be captured on video.

Videos of firefighters and fire departments in action are everywhere from the newsrooms to the Internet to training programs. There is the potential for tremendous value from videos to improve operations of fire departments, yet it seems that most of the coverage tends to be negative and does not always paint the fire service in the best light. This is not to say that this is always the case, as everyone can cite many instances where firefighters and fire departments have been portrayed doing great work. Unfortunately in too many instances, it is the negative situations that end up going viral or getting the most news coverage.

The proliferation of videos has had an unbelievable impact on the fire service. It has created an entirely new industry within the service. Today, firefighters get daily doses of videos from around the world, literally. Web sites, e-magazines, and e-newsletters rely on the countless videos that make their way to the Internet and get circulated through e-mails. In addition, they often get posted within minutes of the actual event. There is no way for a department to avoid pictures being taken, and it will happen with or without your permission. Mostly, the videos are benign and don’t lead to too many issues, but clearly problems can be created when videos are being taken. And this applies to nonemergency situations as well as emergency events.

Videos can come from security cameras, the public, the media, or within the department. There are so many that most do not receive much attention. It is only when things are way outside the norm that they get coverage and most likely when things are bad. The above mentioned elevator video was released only because of its potential to create controversy and news coverage. There were obviously thousands of hours of video from the same elevator that never saw the light of day. Of course, the person who provided the copy was allegedly offered six figures, enough to compensate him for his loss of employment!

Fire departments and their members should assume that they are on camera whenever they are out in the public. More businesses and homes than ever before have installed security cameras. They have become so prevalent that most people don’t even notice when they are present. They have blended into the landscape. You can be certain that if something appears to be interesting on any of these systems, someone will leak it to the authorities. As such, everyone within your organization must be continually vigilant in making sure that they are behaving.

The public may be the most threatening to the fire service regarding taking videos. Everyone has a cell phone, and it is often the first thing that appears when an emergency occurs. It also is readily available to capture situations that the person finds interesting or thinks may turn interesting. They may be covert or not care if they are noticed. Sometimes they know exactly what they are doing and shooting. In other cases, they are just taking a picture, and something appears in the window. Regardless, the results are the same.

Most of the time the media videos are overt and obvious, and any reasonable person will know the content. Of course, this changes when they are doing an investigative report. In this case, you will find out what is covered once it has been determined to be incriminating to you or your organization. Regardless of your opinion of the media, they have a right to take pictures in public places. Cooperation, not confrontation, is almost always the best course of action.

Fire departments also have many options regarding capturing video. There is the old standby video camera that is used for many reasons. Some organizations have installed cameras in their vehicles just as many police agencies have done. They capture everything within the “eyesight” of the camera whenever it is operational. It will capture driving and operations if the camera is aimed at the right thing. Last, there have been many videos captured by helmet cameras worn by firefighters. Some of them are authorized by the department; others may not be. Whether or not authorized, departments must be aware of the fact that the content may be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act regardless of which device was used.

As stated above, the vast majority of video taken is not of too much widespread interest. There is value for training purposes, and it can be helpful to study for ways to improve. This is of most value when used by the department that took the video. It has the most knowledge of all of the circumstances. One of the challenges of looking at a video is that it is two-dimensional and may not capture the entire picture. So those who are not totally familiar with the circumstances may be forming opinions based on insufficient or incomplete facts. The benefit to training is maximized when videos are used as part of a complete review including personal statements and information gained from other sources.

Departments must be aware of the potential for problems created by the widespread use of cameras. Organizations can be embarrassed by what appears, either through recorded bad behavior or a tape that shows a poorly functioning crew. Once the information goes out, it can be difficult to change opinions even if the facts don’t support the two-dimensional view. Besides the potential for embarrassment, there are more serious issues to consider such as legal problems that can be civil or criminal. One does not need to think too hard to recall some very public videos that led to serious trouble for those caught in the act.

When you think of all the things that can happen when the ability to be recorded in so many ways exists, it should make you think of actions that you and your organization should do to minimize the potential for problems arising. There can be value in having video, but you need to prepare so that the pros greatly outweigh the cons. Here are a few suggestions that should serve more as reminders, not necessarily earth-shattering revelations.


  • You and everyone in your organization must always act as if you are on camera because you probably are.
  • You need a policy regarding the use of cameras that are under the control of your organization. Members should not use devices like helmet cameras without departmental approval. The department should also maintain control of any videos taken.
  • You should strongly evaluate the pros and cons of individuals taking pictures. Although there is value for training, you must also know that anything you have could be discoverable by the public.
  • Check on any requirement with respect to how long you need to maintain videos, especially in-vehicle cameras.
  • Be cautious of criticizing others. You may not have the total picture and are looking only at two dimensions from only one angle.
  • Verify authenticity when you are suspicious. With the software available, some videos can be altered and look very real.
  • Have a plan should something be revealed through the media or a public source. You cannot deny the existence and cannot hide. You will need to be proactive, so decide ahead of time how you will handle not-so-flattering revelations.
  • Make friends. You almost always get a fairer shake from those who like you.
  • Be prepared to move on as quickly as possible. There is so much material that your issue can be easily replaced with something more current.

This is only a brief overview and is intended to get you to consider all facets of video coverage of your organization. There is no question that reviewing tapes in the proper environment can be very helpful in training and can improve performance. But like with a lot of things, there could be a downside. There is no way to eliminate the fact that you will be captured on video. You must prepare as if it will happen whenever you are in public.

RICHARD MARINUCCI has been a fire chief for more than 27 years and has been chief in Northville Township, Michigan, since January 2009. Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills (1984–2008), president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He is a speaker at FDIC, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus magazines, and editor of the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.


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