SF fire department to revisit ban on firefighter helmet cams

The move to reconsider the restrictions came the day after Chief Joanne Hayes-White had issued an edict against helmet-mounted cameras, citing victims' and firefighters' privacy concerns

The San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — In an apparent about-face, San Francisco Fire Department officials said Monday they will revisit restrictions on firefighters' use of helmet-mounted cameras after concluding that footage from the Asiana Airlines crash showed the value of the devices.

The move to reconsider the restrictions came the day after The Chronicle reported that Chief Joanne Hayes-White had issued an edict against helmet-mounted cameras, citing victims' and firefighters' privacy concerns.

The chief handed down the order after helmet-camera footage of the Asiana rescue effort raised questions about whether firefighters' missteps at San Francisco International Airport on July 6 had led to the death of a crash survivor. Hayes-White restricted the devices after The Chronicle reported the existence of the footage this month.

Revealing footage
The footage was shot by a camera mounted on the helmet of the battalion chief in charge of the firefighting and rescue operation. It made clear that firefighters had not warned him or other rescue coordinators that 16-year-old Chinese schoolgirl Ye Meng Yuan was lying on the ground near the left wing of the burning plane.

The battalion chief, Mark Johnson, ordered a rig into the area to help douse flames on the burning plane. The rig ran over the girl as she lay obscured beneath fire-retardant foam.

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.

Critics questioned Hayes-White's timing and said the restriction could be interpreted as an effort to avoid having firefighters' mistakes recorded on video. Among the critics was an attorney whom Ye's family has retained to consider filing a lawsuit against the Fire Department.

Johnson installed his helmet camera on his own, as have an unknown number of firefighters and paramedics. Hayes-White said Johnson has been interviewed as part of an investigation into whether he violated the 2009 policy.

Until the Asiana crash, the chief didn't know any San Francisco firefighters had helmet cameras, department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said Monday. She said that under the department's videotaping policy, any firefighter who wanted to use a helmet camera needed special permission.

'Valuable information'
However, Talmadge acknowledged that the footage from Johnson's helmet camera had proved useful in the investigation into Ye's death.

"Obviously, there was valuable information captured on that videotape," she said. As a result, she said, "the administration is intending to revisit the current policy. But it has to be done in a thoughtful and thorough manner."

Talmadge said the goal is to "maintain the intent of the original policy" to protect firefighters' and patients' rights, while permitting helmet cameras in some instances. "But until that time, the current policy remains in effect."

Any policy "allowing videotaping has to be extremely fleshed out," Talmadge said.

Battalion Chief Kevin Smith, president of a group that is representing Johnson, the Black Firefighters Association, welcomed the department's willingness to consider allowing greater use of helmet cameras.

"The bottom line is, the department needs to come up with a comprehensive policy that addresses the issues of the social media and the benefits of training, while maintaining the need to protect privacy," Smith said. "They just need to embrace the future and stop running from it."

Smith added, "I hope they can put something in place quickly so we can start utilizing this technology."

'Indefensible' position
Anthony Tarricone, attorney for the Ye family, said the policy and the Fire Department's initial position was "really indefensible and not designed to enhance investigations or public safety."

"It's important to give thoughtful consideration when establishing a procedure and protocol," Tarricone said. "But the protocol should be to enhance public safety and to understand the events of what happened. What was handled well and what wasn't handled well is critically important for public safety and future operations."

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