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Why we shouldn't need laws on scene photo sharing

Why do we still have providers who don't know that you should not take and share pictures of dead bodies from calls?

Earlier this month, the N.J. legislature passed and Gov. Chris Christie signed into law legislation that prohibits first responders from distributing photographs of accident victims to the public without their consent. Violation of the law could result in criminal charges against the provider.

Like almost every other law ever written, this new law stems from an occasion when someone did something they should not have done and somebody else was harmed or offended. In this case, a first responder shared a photograph of a 40-year-old woman who had been killed in an auto accident.

Now, I want you to imagine that I am sitting in my office chair; my eyes are closed, I'm rubbing my temples, and I am slowly shaking my head left and right... because that is exactly what I am doing.

I am wondering to myself, "What the heck?!"

I'm not questioning the law; I'm questioning the need for the law.

And I'm not questioning the need for the law because such a law is not important; I'm questioning the need for the law because why, in 2012, do we still have providers who don't know that you should not take and share pictures of dead bodies from calls to which you respond?

I am fully aware that EMS has been slower to evolve — or has evolved differently — than many other segments of professional life.

For example, I doubt a group of accountants ever covered the office toilet with cellophane or intentionally ate hard-boiled eggs and raw cabbage and drank ultra-strong coffee just to see who could stand the smell the longest.

Of course, that group of accountants also never has to make a life-and-death decision within seconds; their accounting duties don't include telling a mother that her child is gone.

So I get it. EMS is unique, and there are many more gray areas than most other work environments. But that does not excuse the diminution or even complete absence of common sense. Common sense should be enough to tell you that you don't take and share scene photos anymore.

That's right: I said, "anymore"

Before digital photography — and even longer before the internet — scene photos were never given a second thought.

Everyone had their small, secret collection of Polaroids or 4-by-6-inch instant prints from the more spectacular calls: Overturned vehicles, decapitations, severed limbs and, of course, any variation of injured genitals.

They were usually stashed in a locker or duty bag, and if nobody actually told you about them or invited you to look at them, you never knew they existed.

I'm certainly not saying that I condone such behavior (clearing throat), but this was how it was when I started in EMS in the '80s. The photos were out there and providers got an eyeful, especially the newbies, but nobody outside a very small circle ever saw them. Family and friends of the victims never saw them, for sure.

Of course, when the internet came to life, email, file-sharing and websites made distribution easy and even brought some notoriety to the photographer/provider who could produce the most disturbing images.

Now here we are. The internet developed faster than EMS's ability to understand and adapt to it.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

Scene photos can be invaluable for patient care, education, training, debriefing and policy development purposes. But as the internet and social media make the world smaller by the day, providers and provider agencies must continually create and implement new and better ways to keep those images secure.

I have a few ideas that may help. 

  1. Make sure your agency has a written policy regarding any on-scene photography: Who, how, why, when.
  2. Establish security measures and procedures that strictly control and track all images captured.
  3. Do not, under any circumstance, transmit scene photographs electronically to anyone for any reason.
  4. Designate specific individuals authorized to capture images on an emergency scene.
  5. Specify the image-capturing device. Do NOT use any device capable of transmitting data or images electronically, such as tablets or cell phones.

Like anything else, in the proper hands and under the appropriate circumstances, a picture is worth a thousand words. Just make sure that they are the right thousand words.

As for the new law in N.J., it makes terrific sense. If you don't want such a law in your state, don't give your legislature a reason to pass one.

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