When civilians hit record: Be on the news without becoming the news

A sidewalk confrontation, a car crash selfie, and a pre-arrival video remind us that every incident is recorded and fodder for local or national news


I am regularly challenged to make sense of the right of civilians to be idiots when it comes to smartphone recording. I think we all are. Though their photos and videos, not to mention their behaviors to get the shot, are almost always shameful, they are often well within their rights. 

However, three recent, high-profile incidents of bystander photography and video recording go up to and possibly even across the line the decency. They’re the kind of incidents that will test even the most disciplined medic. As you read about each incident visualize how you might handle it because sooner or later you are likely to have a similar opportunity to be on the news. 

Make the sensational dull and boring

A photojournalist and media activist abandoned an interview at Comic Con in San Diego to film a patient and ambulance crew. His tone of voice and aggressive chase of the patient triggered a sympathetic nervous system response - fight or flight - in the bystanders, as well as the fire and EMS professionals tending to the patient. His poorly framed and inadequately lit video of an unidentifiable celebrity only became news when a firefighter attempted to stop him from filming

I felt my pulse quicken and protective instincts flare just watching. But as predatory as his actions were, he had a right to photograph or videotape anyone in a public place. Neither public safety professionals nor patients have a right to privacy in public. 

When you feel your pulse quicken and your muscles tense in a situation like this, focus on tending to the patient and making your work a boring non-event. The patient, holding a bedsheet or towel over their face, with a quiet and dignified EMS crew makes this a non-event and - at best - boring b-roll.   

Don’t let a distraction become a disruption

When I am out and about I take photos of ambulances, EMS equipment, and lay rescuer supplies. As a passerby I have taken photos of crash scenes when care is already underway for potential future use. 

A London man is drawing sharp critique - not for photographing an incident like I might have - but for posing for a selfie with an incident which injured three woman behind him. 

I understand the instinct to share unusual or out-of-the-norm events we happen onto. For millennia humans have shared stories around the campfire, on the cave wall, and in print of life-changing or life-wrecking events. The compulsion to tell stories to our friends and family is only amplified by the presence of a smartphone. 

Though his selfie probably crossed the line into poor taste it is not for us to judge, especially in the moment. Bystanders talking, taking photographs, and even offering to help are always potential distractions. A distraction is a momentary physical, visual, or mental pause from the task at hand which might be assessing the patient, extricating the patient or directing traffic. Don’t let a distraction turn into a disruption or leave the task at hand to attempt to halt disrespectful bystander behavior. 

Cameras are always rolling 

The award for Most Loathsome Onlooker goes to an Ohio man, who - seconds after a car crashed, with one teen in the process of dying from his injuries - opened the car door, filming and narrating what he saw. His actions were clearly reprehensible, choosing to film the scene and injured passengers instead of offering aid before police and paramedics arrived. 

But he was not arrested for being a loathsome neighbor or attempting to sell the video; he was arrested for trespassing in a vehicle. 

A bystander or even a family member videoing a scene before and as EMS arrives is not unexpected or unusual. If police are present there is a 99 percent or better chance your arrival and all on scene actions will be filmed and from multiple angles. Again, our role as EMS providers is to focus on doing what is best for the patient and continually assessing a dynamic scene for changing risks to health and safety. If you suspect or know that bystander actions are criminal, share that information with the police. Let them tend to the crime while you care for the patient. 

Keep your cool 

These news stories give some of us a chance to shout foul in Facebook comments or even threaten violence if we were faced with a similar situation. 

But unfortunately, any adrenaline fueled response to any of these scenarios more likely brings unwanted attention to you. Keep your cool, focus on the patient, and be on the news without being the news. 

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