Privacy, training at center of controversial no-camera policy for first-responders

(CBS News) The San Francisco Fire Department reminded firefighters over the weekend not to use cameras on the job. But officials say they'll revisit the controversial no-camera policy, which took center stage after the deadly Asiana Flight 214 last month.

Recently, a newspaper printed photos from a helmet cam worn by the battalion chief who was directing the response to the Asiana crash. The photos were shocking because they showed how 16-year-old Ye Mengyuan had survived the accident only to be struck and killed by a fire truck.

Special coverage: Crash of Asiana Flight 214

In the photos, the foam spraying rig can be seen being moved. It ended up running over Ye Mengyuan who was lying on the ground covered with fire retardant. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, two firefighters knew Yuan was there, but thought she was already dead, and didn't tell the chief.

After the photos became public, the department said the camera should never have been used at the crash site. Mindy Talmadge, San Francisco Fire Department public information officer, said: "The fire department is bound by federal and state laws to do everything that it can in order to protect patient privacy."

The San Francisco Fire Department has prohibited the use of all recording devices since 2009, and sent out a reminder of its policy on Sunday. The helmet cam used at the crash site was apparently used by the firefighter on his own.

Tiny cameras have become increasingly popular among firefighters across the country. They very clearly show the dangers firefighters face every day, but proponents have said they also capture important clues for arson investigators, and can provide evidence for criminal prosecutions.

Arin Pace, president of helmet cam company FDCam LLC, said: "The problem often is, we're not in documentation mode when we get to a house fire or a building fire. We're doing our jobs. We're not really thinking about all the information that needs to be collected at the time. And so the helmet cam does that for us."

Pace, a firefighter, said they're also valuable for training, for "things we missed, things we did right. It's good to go back and see an unbiased view of how you did."

The cameras are not supposed to be used in San Francisco, but that could change. The department says they are taking a second look at their blanket ban because they now see how useful the cameras can be.

"Obviously, the information that was gained from the incident with Ye Mengyuan, that's very valuable information for the investigation," Talmadge said. "We see the intrinsic value in that."

The department hasn't set a timetable for when it might change its policy to allow helmet cams. For now, the policy remains in effect, and if a firefighter wants to use one, they will need to get special permission from the fire chief herself.

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The Newsroom