Cameras on fire helmets raising privacy concerns

Some refuse to use equipment

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There are reasons it might be helpful to put cameras on firefighters' helmets: It could help with investigations or training and even serve as a third-party observer during a blaze.

But North Versailles Commissioner Russell Saula can't get out of his head all the bad things that could happen with the helmet-mounted cameras. A firefighter, he said, could easily videotape a prized coin collection or confidential paper on the dining room table. Or worse.

"I don't want somebody coming in my house and filming," he said this week. "My wife might be in her negligee. Who knows where these tapes are going afterward?"

Because of that and other commissioners' worries, township leaders on Thursday voted to forbid firefighters from using any audio and video recording equipment while battling a blaze.

Whether they knew it or not, they joined officials across the country currently weighing the benefits and drawbacks of the helmet cam and whether it has a place in their fire company.

Bellevue fire officials have two or three of the devices and have found them to be a useful addition.

"The big thing is training," said Bellevue fire Chief Glenn Pritchard, whose fire captain -- his son, Glenn Jr. -- uses a helmet cam.

The chief recalled a recent fire in Ross, where his department arrived with its ladder truck to help. Capt. Pritchard extended the ladder to the roof, where he helped ventilate it using a saw -- leaving his helmet cam on the whole time. Other fire companies have expressed interest in using their footage for training exercises to help their members learn the maneuvers, such as where to place their feet, when opening a roof, the chief said.

In other scenarios, video from a helmet cam could aid in fire investigations. An arson investigator, for example, might be interested to know who was standing around a scene when crews first arrive, Chief Pritchard said.

The Bellevue captain also sometimes leaves the camera on in the vehicle en route to scenes-- clamped to the dash or elsewhere -- where it acts as a third-party observer, much like a dash cam on a police squad car.

Despite the benefits of this technology, many departments are cautious in their acceptance of it.

"We don't have them, and I have not decided on how to move forward with that," said Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Chief Darryl E. Jones. "That's one of the challenges that's coming up that we're going to have to take a hard look at."

Gary Hamilton, fire chief for the North Fayette Volunteer Fire Department, said he'll "think long and hard" about the cameras and discuss them with township council.

One reason for the caution is the risk of footage being posted on social media. In interviews Friday, several fire officials recalled anecdotes they had heard of firefighters in other states posting video on Facebook of macabre fire scenes, some with graphic images of victims, from video taken from their helmet cams or smartphones.

If used as a training tool or for investigative purposes, it could be advantageous, said Nick Sohyda, fire chief in Mt. Lebanon, where firefighters do not use the cameras.

"But the problem is people are misusing what they're capturing," he said. "If it was my loved one, I would not want it posted all over the media."

North Versailles isn't the only place where the device is now prohibited.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this month that city's fire chief banned helmet-mounted video cameras for firefighters after images from a battalion chief's recording became public and showed a first responder running over a 16-year-old victim shortly after the Asiana Airlines crash last summer. The fire chief said filming the scene may have violated both firefighters' and victims' privacy, the paper reported.

The criticisms from the township commission meeting Thursday night, while tinged with humor, brought up a good question: What happens to the recordings?

In Bellevue, the helmet camera functions on a memory card of sorts. Firefighters download the footage they wish to keep onto a fire department password-protected computer folder and can wipe the card, just like an at-home digital or video camera.

"If it looks like it's of no value to us ... we'll just delete them and they're gone," Chief Pritchard said.

Department policy states that firefighters cannot share footage that is "anything personal."

Some fire officials say departments should also be mindful of any modifications they make to their helmets, such as drilling holes to attach a camera.

Eric Buzard, product line manager for firefighter helmets for Cranberry-based Mine Safety Appliances, which supplies Pittsburgh firefighter helmets, said drilling to anchor cameras voids the warranty.

One option: Capt. Pritchard attaches his camera to the helmet with clamps instead of drilling holes.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Freelance writer Anne Cloonan contributed.


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