Before You Post That Photo to Facebook

This a re-posting of archive content, that’s no longer available on the Legeros Blog Archives site due to technical issues. For a related posting, see How to Become a Fire Photographer.

March 6, 2015

Here’s today’s thought exercise. Should you post a fire photo to Facebook, if you’re a member of the department that’s fighting the fire?

Let’s talk through this.

Prelude

Question one. Why Facebook, specifically? Versus elsewhere on social media or other web sites?

To me, Facebook seems like its own animal. So popular, so easily used, so easily misused. It’s also where Yours Truly spends much of his social media time. (Versus a more modest presence on Twitter, and nearly no use of other channels.)

Also, some have reservations or outright apprehension about Facebook. Since fire photos are records of “other people’s lives,” it’s easy to imagine someone saying “I didn’t call the fire department just to see my life posted on Facebook.”

(Now there’s a social experiment worth conducting! Measure public reactions to identical fire photos, as posted on Facebook versus Instagram, Twitter, official web site, or personal web site.)

Question two. Why are talking about firefighters only? Why not all responders, including EMS and law enforcement?

We’re starting simple. Bear with me. We’ll be talking a bit about medical responders, often components of a fire department. Either as first responders or fire-based EMS.

Question three. What about all those fire photos posted by Legeros and Lee Wilson? Or what photojournalists and the “the news” produce? Or just Joe Q. filming from the street corner?

Good question! On one hand, it’s absolutely a different animal. None of those individuals are city/county/agency employers or members. Nor are they responders with real and perceived responsibilities.

On the other hand–at least with the news and our favorite fire photogs—they have their own protocols. They, too, weigh issues such as personal values, employer or sponsor procedures, and the base ethics of their actions.

But back to firefighters…

Shooting Photos versus Posting Photos

We’ll start with semantics. Shooting versus posting.

Every photo posted to Facebook is actually three things:

  • The photo itself.
  • The action of posting the photo.
  • Any caption, commentary, or comments included (or later added) to the photo.

Sometimes simply taking a photo is problematic.

Think about, say, a fire investigator arriving a working structure fire. They hop out of their “red car” and begin snapping pictures for documentation. Bystanders observe this and contrast their actions with the other arriving units. “Why is that guy taking pictures? Why isn’t he going to get a hose?”

Sometimes taking a photo is “okay”, but posting is a problem.

Responders may take pictures for internal use of severe accidents involving fatalities, such as an extended extrication or complicated technical rescue. (They’re particularly good training tools.) But if those photos are shown to the public, the response by the public is usually negative.

Sometimes both taking and posting a photo is fine, but captions or comments cause problems.

There’s a world of difference between the picture of a house fire with the caption “Engine 50 fought a fire today” versus such captions as “Strong work by Engine 50 today” (good) or “Good day for a barbecue” (bad).

Posting Photos Officially

Let’s define “official photo” as any picture that a fire department releases for public consumption. And, for our purposes, also posts to Facebook. Could be a picture taken by a civilian. Could be a donated news photo. Most likely it’s a picture taken by a member of the department. 

When should you post or not post a photo from an incident? Here’s my take, based both on (a.) my approach to posting scene pictures and (b.) what I’ve observed as posted by fire departments to Facebook.

What do you think of this chart? What would you change in the yes/no/maybe categories?  

Type of Incident Post Photo? Additional Considerations
Medical emergencies, most NO  
Medical emergencies, multi-patient incidents Maybe Excluding images of patients and treatment.
Vehicle accidents, no injuries Yes  
Vehicle accidents with injuries Maybe Excluding images of patients and treatment.
Fires, no injuries Yes  
Fires, with injuries Yes   Excluding images of patient treatment
Fires, with fatalities Yes, but with sensitivities to language Excluding images of patient treatment or fatalities
Note about ALL fires:  If under investigation, posted photos should be approved by investigators.
Technical rescue (non-vehicle), no injuries Yes  
Technical rescue (non-vehicle) with injuries Maybe, but with sensitivities to language Excluding images of patient treatment
Haz-mat incidents, no injuries Yes  
Haz-mat incidents with injuries or fatalities Maybe, but with sensitivities to language Excluding images of patient treatment or fatalities
Disasters Maybe, but with sensitivities to language Excluding images of patient treatment or fatalities

Also, do you see a pattern here?

Cameras and patients are prickly combination. Photographic documentation of any incident involving medical treatment must include considerations for medical privacy. (HIPAA has only one “P”, by the way.) Then add another layer of caution for fatal incidents.

Also, don’t forget the obvious considerations for depictions of unsafe practices, policy violations, and anything else that “isn’t listed above” but “might make the department look bad.”

(Yes, we’re having a “don’t do” conversation here, which is a bit unfortunate. There is GREAT value in digital imagery. Pictures tell a thousand words and can add value to fire and EMS departments in areas ranging from documentation to training to public information.)

Personal Photos – Taking

Now let’s get personal. You’ve brought your camera to work. Mostly likely it’s mobile phone. Did you leave the thing in your personal vehicle? Or maybe in your locker? Let’s say you’re carrying it on your person. Maybe even on calls.

And let’s be honest, there are compelling reasons for having a personal electronic device on your person and even on scene, particularly for company or chief officers.

But should you be taking pictures with that device? Here are some decision points to consider:

  • Does your department have a policy on using personal electronic devices?
  • Does your department have a policy on digital imagery?
  • Does your department’s employer (city, county, etc.) have such policies?
  • Does your boss or boss’s boss have opinions on such uses?
  • Does such usage impact the performance of your duties

Be aware of rules and personal preferences and conduct yourself accordingly.

Personal Photos – Posting

So you whipped out your camera and took a picture while you were working. Should you post the thing?

First, consider the same decision points as above:

  • Policy restrictions on publishing information?
  • Policy restrictions on digital imagery?
  • Personal opinions of your boss or boss’s boss?

Then there’s a second set of considerations to consider.

Will these posted photos:

  • Be good for your department?
  • Be good for your crew?
  • Be good for you?

Wait a minute, you ask? Do we really have to think about such things, even when we’re goofing around the fire station?

Yes, no, maybe. Depends on the type of picture, which can be anything or everything including:

  • Station life
  • Riding around
  • While responding.
  • While on scene, during mitigation.
  • While on scene, after mitigation but before leaving.
  • Returning to station.
  • Training activities.
  • Community activities.
  • When off-duty.

But we’re talking about fire photos in this posting. The others are a different kettle of fish. Or maybe kettles, plural.

Posting Personal Fire Photos

So you snapped a picture on scene.

Maybe it’s a wide shot showing building and flames. Maybe you’re closer and caught some of the first company’s actions on camera. Or maybe the shouting’s over and you snapped a couple shots during overhaul.

Should you post that picture?

It’s an innocuous picture, you think. Shows the situation and crews in action. Nothing looks unsafe, nothing appears un-kosher.

And really, what’s the worst that can happen? 

Imagine this sequence of events:

  • Residential fire with injuries.
  • Family takes fire department to court.
  • Lawyers discover one or more incident photos, as posted by individual firefighters.
  • These photos depict actions or activities that contradict the documentation from fire investigators.
  • Lawyers use photos in court, attempting to demonstrate liability of department.
  • Photos present two-fold problem.
  •  irst is potentially contradictory documentation. Picture shows X instead of Y.
  • Second, the existence of the picture demonstrates that a firefighter tasked firefighting was instead taking pictures.

Would the fire department win in court? Would such a win compel the lawyers to pursue civil cases against firefighters? Maybe, possibly.

But let’s emphasize that last bullet point:

Posting personal photos while on scene provides documentation that you (and thus your department) were (at that moment) “taking pictures instead of protecting property or saving lives.”

Do you see the value-loss here? Both for yourself and organizationally?

Personally Posting Someone Else’s Fire Photo

Next question, what if someone else took the photo? Is it “okay” to personally post someone else’s personally shot scene photo?

Use common sense here, which is really what we’ve been saying all along. Everything we’ve discussed so far still applies.

Someone sends you a fire photo that they snapped, or maybe you’ve downloaded one from someone’s posting. Walk through the considerations we’ve covered above. Does posting present any liabilities? Does it add value?

Scratching the Surface

We’ve walked through one example of how a responder’s personal photo, taken on scene, could cause some serious problems.

But we’re really just scratching the surface on this issue. Maybe at a later date we’ll explore other facets, such as…

  • Ethics. That’s a whole thread unto itself. What are or should be the ethics of taking pictures at emergency scenes? Of capturing “the worst day of someone’s life” and in contrast or the context of a responder enthusiasm / excitement / enjoyment of their role therein?
  • Spoilage. This one’s a legal concept. When the chain of evidence is broken in an investigation. Your fire investigations are trained on this. They don’t delete any photos taken at a fire scene, for example. Imagine a line firefighter called into court. Sir, you took pictures of the fire while you were on duty. But you say you deleted that documentation? Etc., etc.
  • Open records laws. Need to research this one. Thinking that “personal photos” created using a personal electronic device while on duty are probably subject to such laws. Are you prepared for that “personal photo” to be available to anyone at public request?
  • Public photography is not a crime. Anyone can take a picture of anything, as long as they’re in a public space. Don’t waste your time or energy or reputation trying to confront a citizen taking pictures at a fire.
  • Responder photography might be a crime. At least one state in recent years has proposed legislation that would make responder photos of victims at accidents illegal.
      
  • Selfies. Or, for “old farts” reading, holding your phone with an outstretched arm, to take a self-portrait. Usually with “something” in the background. Shooting a selfie is a blatant act. Really hard to conceal. What’s a property owner to think, if they one or more firefighters doing this? Worse, what’s the public to think, if the “selfie moment” is caught on camera by the news?
  • Anything but incident postings. Some fire department Facebook pages exclude pictures of incidents. (Or of active incidents activities and instead post only “aftermath” photos.) Others exclude even textual references. Instead, they use their Facebook page for such functions as community outreach, recruitment, or recognizing members. Not ever agency is comfortable with or authorized to “post official photos.” 
  • Official versus unofficial versus automatic Facebook pages. How this for confusing? Facebook automatically creates “placeholder” pages for certain community organizations, such as fire departments. They’re displayed with equal prominence in search results, and might be named the same as the department’s official page. Then, there are the unofficial pages that any person can create. Might be named for the department. Might be named for a single station or company. Confusing enough for you? Gets worse when the sites become outdated. They are abandoned instead of deleted. Heck of a user experience for people trying to search for a department’s Facebook presence. Not to mention a big ol’ can of worms from the governance perspective.   
  • The power of photography. Curiosity and the desire to share experiences are core human traits. Heck, just observe firefighters as they exit a structure after suppression. They immediately begin comparing notes. “Here’s what I saw.” “Here’s what happened to me.” With pictures, you get a thousand words per pop. They take sharing to another level, adding visual information. As a lifelong photographer (and curious person), I will never fault someone for wanting to either make pictures or see pictures of “something that happened.”
     
  • Everything you post can be made public. This is the first rule we learned about email. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want on a sign in your front year. That’s because e-mail was and still is so easily misdirected. Facebook postings on private walls can be easily captured and re-transmitted to other people. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want seen on the evening news.
  • Firefighters as ambassadors. Been there and done that, right? But consider that your virtual self is also an ambassador of sorts. People will form impressions based on your conduct of both you and your organization.
  • Public servants are never off-duty. Thus that “on my own time” and “on my private Facebook page” argument doesn’t really hold water with the general public. They’ll promptly raise torches and pitchforks if enough outrage is raised.
  • Everything else on Facebook. Humor is hard. Ours is a world of instant outrage. When “dayroom humor” leaks into the public sphere, someone outside of the profession is usually offended. Or are you dabbling in personal opinions, say political or social or religious views? Free speech equals freedom from prosecution. In the United States of American, you won’t be jailed for what you say. Free speech does not equal freedom from consequences. See prior points above. Thank you and good night.

Comments

Dave LeBlanc – Great stuff and good discussion. On the ethics side also, re-sharing a photo without credit, or in an unintended way. Or blatantly stealing a photo from Facebook for your own use. Happens a lot

Legeros – Thanks Dave, and a great point about credits and re-purposing of pictures.

James – With regards to open-records, your phone and all of its data can be subject to subpoena, including those “off-color” emails/texts that your buddy sent to you. Not sure I’d want an investigator going through all my data & history with a fine-tooth comb/microscope… I’m not an attorney nor do I play one on tv, but that’s how it’s been explained to me in the past.

Galax, VA – Mike, James brings up an important point, even though this blog discussion was initially about posting incident pictures, he’s brought up an area that should be discussed especially due to some recent events. Charlotte Fire Department recently dismissed a fire investigator over comments she made on her Facebook Page that had nothing to do with her job at CFD. And in the last couple of weeks one of its Chief Officers, ( a deputy chief I believe ) suddenly retired after being placed on investigative suspension for a similar reason. So all social media postings not just pictures can com back to haunt you. And finally the U.S Department of Justice ruled that the Ferguson Mo. Police Depaartment displayed a culture of racial biased, not because the unarmed black youth was shot by a white officer, but partially because a review of Police Officers Social Media accounts and Personnal Emails were filled with racist jokes, and comments so again if your post it, or email it, remember you may think it’s private access, but clearly it can come back to bite you in the butt.

Legeros – Thanks Galax. As a friend to all firefighters (I hope), it pains me to call attention to more local examples of this. But there’s a value in example, the “whoa, it can happen here” factor. Social media and electronic communication are deceptive… in how they users can be lulled into perceptions of privacy.

Adrienne M Johnson – My husband, Nathaniel M Johnson,PE , member of IAAI held many degrees, as well as that of Fire Expert Witness, as a Fire Investigator and would have fully supported all that you have written. Most of these fires end up in court for various reasons. He would agree with EVERY WORD SAID OR WRITTEN PLUS PICTURES can be used by either side in court and in some cases have serious effects on an otherwise excellent case. When you are employed in this field, no matter your level of position it is a 24/7 commitment of responsibility, and integrity. Nathaniel passed Jan ’14 from an unusual disease called MDS which is usually caused by an exposure to certain chemicals which cause mutations to ones T Cells. As you all know fire temperature causes changes in materials in a fire into other chemical combinations. Be it an investigator, firefighter, clean up crew… always go in with precaution protection masks and skin exposure.

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