There are many brands and types of inexpensive, waterproof, and rugged video and digital cameras on the market with storage capacities exceeding 32 gigabytes and pixel resolutions ranging from a lower quality 640x480 to high definition 1280x720. Many firefighters have purchased such cameras and mounted them on their fire helmet. These “helmet cams” record images and sounds from all types of fire department activities including but limited to training exercises, EMS responses, vehicle extrications, and fires. One can search the Internet and find many examples of videos taken by a firefighter using a helmet cam of training exercises, emergency responses, and activities inside the fire station. Whether firefighters are using these helmet cams or other types of video, photographic, and/or audio recording devices, such as glasses and pocket recorders, with or without the permission of the fire chief or city administration, helmet cams and similar video, photographic, and audio recording devices pose a potential liability to the person using the camera, the fire department, and the municipality.
As an example, on July 6, 2013, Asiana Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport. A battalion chief’s helmet mounted video recording device filmed the fire department working at the crash site, including when a crash truck ran over a 16-year-old girl from the plane. The video and still images from the video were shown in both TV and print media, and the use of the camera raised privacy issues.
The use of video recording devices continues to be debated in the media, and some fire chiefs have banned the use of helmet cams and other recording devices (i.e. iPhones, etc.). Video and/or audio recordings and photographs have benefits for training and documentation, but they also raise issues such as privacy concerns, ownership of the recording or image, access to the material as a public record, and long-term storage requirements. Fire departments should consider the costs and benefits of video, audio, and photographic records and create a policy to manage their use. Furthermore, municipalities must develop administrative controls (policy) to consistently answer the questions of privacy, ownership, records retention, and etc.