Last week I wrote about the San Francisco Fire Department's ban on helmet cameras. Citing concern over privacy issues, Chief Joanne Hayes-White determined that a 2009 ban on cameras in SFFD "facilities" also applied to department field operations. However, the timing of the ban, coming as it did so quickly after the Asiana Airlines crash in which helmet camera footage is playing a key role in determining the cause of death of a victim crushed by fire apparatus, suggested to many observers that the Chief's real concern was avoiding potential future liability. The public outcry was so great that a day after my posting, Chief Hayes-White announced that the Department would revisit the issue and reconsider the use of helmet cameras.
The Chief's concerns over privacy do have some merit. Unauthorized release of footage could compromise the privacy of both victims and firefighters. However, the department used to have a videographer at fire scenes, a position that was eliminated by budget cuts. To fill the gap, many firefighters have opted to purchase and use their own helmet cameras. This was the case in the Asiana crash: the battalion chief serving as the incident commander filmed the event on his one helmet camera and later made the footage available to investigators. Stills from this video were used in media stories and can be readily found on YouTube.
The real issue here is that the SFFD lacked and continues to lack a policy on the use of video. Department issued equipment does not exist and there are no guidelines regarding the use of video shot with private equipment. For the Chief to claim that she was not aware of the use of private helmet cameras by firefighters and invoking a policy that was clearly intended for another purpose just highlights this lack of policy direction and suggests a command structure out of touch with field operations.
Since the announcement that the Chief would be reconsidering the ban, there has been no further word from the SFFD on this issue, suggesting that the department may be allowing the story to die while the ban stays in place. Actually, there is one bit of news. The battalion chief responsible for the Asiana Airlines video is being investigated for possible violation of the 2009 ban and may face disciplinary action.