Shooting The Messenger: SF Fire Dept. Officials Attack Firefighter, Helmet Cam After Asiana Airlines Crash

from the the-camera-isn't-the-problem dept

One of the firefighters responding to the Asiana Airlines crash wore a helmet-mounted camera to the scene. This wouldn't have been a big deal (many firemen wear helmet cams), except for the fact that a fire department truck ran over and killed an injured crash victim, 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan. Despite the fact that this was an accident (Ye was completely covered in foam and no one knew she was there until she was run over), San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White felt this could have been avoided by not having a camera on the scene.

Of course, she doesn't phrase it that way, but she is scapegoating the camera (and the cameraman) for what was caught on film.

San Francisco's fire chief has explicitly banned firefighters from using helmet-mounted video cameras, after images from a battalion chief's Asiana Airlines crash recording became public and led to questions about first responders' actions leading up to a fire rig running over a survivor.

Chief Joanne Hayes-White said she issued the order after discovering that Battalion Chief Mark Johnson's helmet camera filmed the aftermath of the July 6 crash at San Francisco International Airport. Filming the scene may have violated both firefighters' and victims' privacy, Hayes-White said, trumping whatever benefit came from knowing what the footage shows.

"There comes a time that privacy of the individual is paramount, of greater importance than having a video," Hayes-White said.
Given the timing of the "new" ban on cameras, Hayes-White's decision was met with incredulity, both from within the fire department and without, most notably from the Ye family's lawyer.
"Why would anybody not want to know the truth?" he told the Chronicle. "What's wrong with knowing what happened? What's wrong with keeping people honest? That's what the helmet cam did, in effect, in this case."
Hayes-White, however, pointed to the fact that the ban was already on the books.
Hayes-White said Friday that helmet cameras were covered by a 2009 ban on video cameras "in any department facility." The Fire Department could be held liable for violating federal medical-privacy laws if firefighters use the footage in unauthorized fashion, the chief said.
Hayes-White also went after Battalion Chief Mark Johnson for filming the footage.
“He violated the rules,” department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said. “He is not allowed to use any kind of recording device and not allowed to film anyone without their permission.”
This statement was made even as Hayes-White equivocated and promised to "discuss" lifting the camera ban. Tom Connor, the firefighters' union rep, questioned the language in the camera ban, which prevents the use of cameras in a "departmental facility."
“So now they’re saying that the airport is a departmental facility? That the streets of San Francisco are a departmental facility?” O’Connor said.
Hayes-White explained that away, too.
Hayes-White said her 2009 ban on video cameras in facilities was meant to include emergency scenes...

Hayes-White should take a long look at what is and isn't permitted before shooting the messenger. Mark Johnson filmed the scene, including his call to move in a foam sprayer, a decision which proved to be fatal for Ye. Rather than cover this up and dump the footage, he voluntarily turned over his recording so it could be used in the investigation. Johnson had a lot of options, considering he was using an unapproved personal camera, but he chose to aid investigators who were looking into his actions at the crash scene. Instead of being respected for his honesty and his contribution to the investigation, he's now facing possible disciplinary action for recording the scene, all because the fire chief would apparently be happier if Ye's death was relegated to the controlled narrative of a back-of-the-filing-cabinet incident report.

Hayes-White keeps stressing "privacy," but it's not privacy she looking for, it's control. While the ban of helmet cameras may have some privacy implications, nothing about the timing, actions or statements made indicates this is really about privacy. Something happened that shouldn't have and the chief's first instinct is to attack the source: Mark Johnson and his "unapproved" helmet cam.

Fortunately, the fire department is planning to revisit its 2009 camera ban, prompted by the backlash to its earlier statements. There's no word whether the disciplinary actions levied against Johnson will be rescinded and the statement itself is loaded with ambiguous terminology.
Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge told reporters on Monday that the battalion chief's actions violated a 2009 prohibition on unauthorized recordings.

But she says that in recognition of the valuable information the video provided, the department would revisit the issue and possibly update the policy. Talmadge says there is no timeline for completing the review.
So, the SF Fire Department can expect a possibly updated policy at some point between now and never. This isn't exactly a turnaround for the department -- more of a conciliatory sidestep. If nothing else, footage shot by responding units can be used as a training tool. More importantly, it can be utilized as an impartial witness.

While Hayes-White and Talmadge are right to be concerned about safety, the answer is to put policies in place that protect citizens, not issue (or reinforce) blanket bans in order to protect the fire department.

Reader Comments

The First Word

Speaking as someone who trains first responders

I'm incredibly proud that Johnson documented his own actions and then turned them over -- even when they turned out to have dire consequences for one of the victims he was trying to rescue.

Accidents with mass casualties are messy: victims get left on the ground and forgotten, people administer the wrong meds, families get separated, all hell breaks loose. Yes, we train people over and over again to minimize all this, but as the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy. It'd be great if every response was perfectly executed under time pressure, and we do work toward that goal, but it'll never happen.

So yes, it's tragic that rescuers ended up killing a victim, but that's just an extreme case of what happens every time there's a bus crash or plane crash or train wreck or anything similar. Until we can get 37 or 80 or 213 first responders to all think with one brain, it's going to keep happening.

And the first responders we want to keep are the ones who TELL US ABOUT IT. Because when they do, we can figure out what went wrong and train to avoid it. So Johnson probably just changed the response protocol for every FD in North America that rolls trucks into foam, because he had the integrity and guts to show us what happened. Yes, it's tragic, yes it's terrible, yes the FD will probably be sued, yes to all of that: but at least we have the opportunity to learn something instead of forever being in the dark and not knowing how or why Ye Meng Yuan died.
—Anonymous Coward

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Aug 2013 @ 1:31pm


    to #8

    she sent it, but it wasn't redacted enough, so they declined to interview her!! she was told to take more lessons on how to not put out information in letter form by simply drawing thick, black lines on a sheet of paper. she is hoping for better luck next time!!

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