THE FIRE SERVICE HAS BEEN QUIETLY DEBATING THE USE OF HELMET CAMS FOR YEARS. But this year, a single incident (the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Fransisco) moved the issue onto the radar of the national media.
The San Fransisco Fire Department’s ban on the use of helmet cams following the incident and somewhat fumbling attempts to defend the policy in the days after, gave the appearance that they hadn’t really thought this through very well. And to be fair, neither have most other departments; however, maybe this should serve as notice that an informed conversation about helmet cams is overdue.
But in order to do that, we need to first identify exactly what their value is to our profession. Having had a cam on my helmet since 2008, I’m definitely sold on the utility of the technology. For this article, I’ve organized the fire helmet cam’s most valuable uses into 4 major categories:
- Public Education
- Public Relations
Have you ever heard someone referred to as a “student of the game”? In the context of team sports (which share innumerable similarities to the fire service), the phrase refers to a player who spends huge amounts of time watching tape. Guys like Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis – players at the top of their game – can spend upwards of 10 hours a day in front of a screen, studying their plays and those of their opponents. Effective coaches (the company officers and chiefs of the sports world), spend significantly more time than that.
To help see how this applies to the fire service, you can compare “plays” to what we call strategies and tactics. The “study of the opponent” can be called fire behavior or reading smoke.
The emergence of video on the fireground has allowed firefighters the opportunity to do the same thing that other pro teams do: Review the game tape. It lets us squeeze the most training possible out of each fire by reviewing the strategies and tactics and evaluating the team’s execution during the operation.
Because of the internet, we’re also able to study other teams working in our “league” to see if they’re employing techniques that could benefit our own department or company. Even if we don’t end up making changes to the way we operate, knowledge of different approaches puts tools in the tool box and should get the team thinking and critiquing wether the way we’re doing things is the best way.
We can basically gain experience by watching fire behavior in the thousands of fire videos on the net. Want to brush up on reading smoke? Hit up YouTube and start studying. With so much content out there, it’s hard not to find something that helps you do your job better. There are even some videos, like this one from Irons and Ladders, that have quality instructional content edited right in to the video.
Another great way to learn from these videos is by participating in the comments section of the video’s web page. If you have questions about what you see, ask them in the comments. You may be surprised to find that there are some very knowledgeable firefighters who often pop up to address your post. And if you have feedback or knowledge that can help others in the discussion, share it constructively. It may help someone become a safer or more effective firefighter.
While watching other firefighters at work is awesome training, watching you and your company at work on the fireground is even better. Your company can go back and watch the incident at a slower pace, with a focus on learning from it – without all the adrenalin in your head to distort things.
The great thing about video is that it has no bias. It shows the event just as it happened. I think we often overestimate our own company’s effectiveness and tend to look at the other guys as the ones who needed improvement. Video will let you know if you’re right or if there were things done on your end which failed, or which failed to contribute to the success of the other companies working on-scene.
Be advised: It is eye opening the first few times you watch yourself at work. Good officers and firefighters (like good coaches and players) are their own worst critics. I have seldom watched a video of my company operating at a fire and felt great satisfaction.
Just don’t be too hard on yourself, and take comfort in this: With all the videos that get submitted to us at FDC from respected firefighters all over the country, I have yet to see “the perfect fire” – the one where everything goes smoothly and there’s no readily apparent room for improvement. In fact, in my career, I have never even been to a fire where I didn’t see things that could have been done better. Know that perfect is not attainable, but striving to get there is where we become truly proficient.
Even though watching tape is good for spotting deficiencies, it is also a tremendous tool for positive reinforcement. Company officers – be careful not to get overly focused on what needs improvement. While watching the tape, make sure to make note of crew members using the techniques and behaviors you want to see more of, and single those members out for additional praise. By rewarding work that hits the mark, you will reinforce good habits and build your crew member’s self-confidence.
Although you’ll learn a lot just watching the tape, if that’s all you do, you’ll only be getting a fraction of the potential value of your helmet cam. In my opinion, the helmet cam’s greatest single benefit is that it shows you the areas where you need to focus your company’s training drills and discussion. If you don’t take the information the footage provides and turn it into drills that address the weaknesses you see, you’ll never get the full advantage this new tool provides.
In this context, visualization means watching a fire video and imagining what you would do given the same scenario.
As a brand new company officer, I used to worry a lot about the arrival report, of all things. When I was a firefighter, I’d often chuckle at some of the reports I’d hear new or inexperienced officers give. But now that it was my turn, I was nervous. I was anxious that I was going to sound like a newb and thereby start the whole operation out on a blunder… My answer to this anxiety was visualization.
In the weeks leading up to my promotion, I spent a few hours every day watching fire videos on my favorite blogs. I wasn’t thinking about arrival reports much during them, but one thing I required of myself at the beginning of every single video, was to give a report in my head (or aloud if I was alone) like I would if I was pulling up on that scene.
A few weeks later, when I got my first working fire as an officer, it was second nature. I didn’t even think about it until after the fire was out. You can listen to it here – Not going to win arrival report of the year, but it was on par for my department. The important thing was, it felt natural – like something I had done many, many times before. And we got in and made a decent stop on the fire (before getting pulled due to a collapse before we could mop up).
Before ever setting foot on a rig, rookie firefighters should have had some exposure to interior conditions. Overwhelmingly, this is done through burn building exercises and to a lesser extent, live-fire training.
Those evolutions are valuable for applying the techniques the recruits are learning in the classroom; and they’re outstanding for getting recruits out of their comfort zone and letting them feel some heat.
But anyone who’s been on the nozzle in a few real fires can tell you there’s a lot missing. The sounds, the smoke, and just the general rhythm of the operation doesn’t mimic a real, working fire very well. Adding some helmet cam video to the classroom portions of recruit training sends probies into the field with a more realistic sense of the environment they will be working in.
I wish we’d had these things when I was a rookie – took me 2 working fires to figure out no one else is doing the duck walk! And having never seen a real working fire first-hand, I just felt out of step with the team in those early days.
Using helmet cams, officers can show new (or newly assigned) firefighters vids of your station at work. This way, they can begin to get a feel for the routine, the flow (size up – stretch – knock – vent – overhaul – mop up) at your station’s bread-and-butter structure fire.
Determining the cause and origin of a fire is one of the most challenging forms of detective work there is. In the Department of Justice’s Fire and Arson Scene Evidence: A Guide for Public Safety Personnel, their “Technical Working Group” describes the uphill battle investigators face:
“Fires, by their destructive nature, consume the evidence of their initiation and progress as they grow. Investigations are compromised, and often scenes are further destroyed by the activities of the fire service, whose primary responsibilities are to save lives and protect property against further damage.
Fire scenes often involve all manner of public entities: emergency medical, law enforcement, and fire services. Public utilities such as gas and electric companies may be involved. Passers-by, owners, tenants, customers, delivery agents all may have relevant information. The press and curious individuals attracted to large fire scenes can complicate investigations, as they make security a necessity.
As has frequently been said, “A fire investigation is like a picture puzzle. Everyone involved with it has some of the pieces, but no one has the whole picture. It is up to the investigator to gather enough of these pieces together to solve the puzzle.”
Because physical evidence is so often destroyed, the biggest piece of that “puzzle” is often the observations of the first-arriving units. Investigators turn to personnel on these units to answer questions that can help determine the cause and origin of the fire, such as:
- What did the fire look like?
- What did the smoke look like?
- Were there any suspicious bystanders on-scene?
- Were signs of forced entry already apparent upon the arrival of the FD, or were they the result of fire department operations?
Unfortunately, accounts from fire officers on these units are often lacking in detail. They are often lacking in accuracy as well – primarily because first-arriving units are working at capacity just accomplishing the tasks needed bring the incident under control. At a time when the scene is richest with the clues an investigator needs, we aren’t able to pay enough attention to them.
The stress of the incident itself further degrades our ability to provide accurate info to investigators. Adrenalin distorts our memory of the event. If you’ve ever watched a helmet cam video of a fire you’ve worked, you already know that.
Some things (like waiting for water or donning your SCBA mask) seemed to take an eternity but in reality took only seconds, while others seemed to happen in a flash, though the video shows several minutes had actually passed. I often find events occurring in a different order than I remembered as well.
This distorted perception of time is called tachypsychia or time dilation - and it’s just one of the effects of adrenalin which impair accurate recall of the event. Other effects of acute stress that disrupt our ability to recall pertinent details are:
- Auditory Exclusion – decreased perception of volume (the reason you always seem to find your radio at full blast after a fire)
- Visual Exclusion – decreased peripheral vision (a primary contributor to what’s commonly referred to as “tunnel vision”)
Elevating our role in evidence gathering
First-in companies have an important story to tell. Unlike investigators, whose only view of the structure is often as a fire-ravaged, water-logged shell, first-in firefighters were witness to the scene in the raw – before evidence-mangling suppression and forcible entry operations have commenced. Unfortunately our capacity to gather evidence in sufficient detail and to then recount the events accurately and objectively is questionable.
Used as documentation tools, helmet cams have the potential to redefine the role of firefighters in cause and origin determination. With the push of a button, we become the investigators’ eyes and ears, allowing them to comb the footage for important evidence busy firefighters may have missed. These devices allow us to reliably record exactly what we saw, and convey it to investigators without bias or interpretation. And the best part is, we don’t have to change anything about how we handle the incident, we just have to press record.
3. Public Education
We live in an ever more connected and information rich culture. More and more, the citizens we serve get their news and information from online news outlets, blogs, and social media. PIOs and PEOs who aren’t effectively engaging the customers we serve in those outlets are missing an unprecedented opportunity.
Facebook and Twitter are great outlets to release short bulletins or updates to a large audience. But there is one outlet where your department’s content has the ability to hold viewers’ attention longer – YouTube. Setting up a top-notch YouTube channel should be a priority for any department’s fire prevention campaigns. From “How to Install a Smoke Detector” and “How to Plan and Conduct a Family Fire Drill”, to “Stop, Drop, and Roll”, there’s an unlimited potential for public education there.
Showing the public compelling footage of their fire department in action is a great way to introduce your citizens to the men and women who serve them, provided the content is thoughtfully selected and carefully edited. Structure fire footage is also an effective funnel to get them to your page or channel, where hopefully you have mixed in the more educational bits that may save lives, prevent injury, or otherwise help in time of crisis. And from the audience’s perspective, those educational bits suddenly seem a lot more relevant after you’ve just watched a structure fire.
4. Public Relations
When the public doesn’t understand what we do, they de-value what we do. Many of us may have seen this first hand at city council or town hall meetings, in the local media, or at the bargaining table. But image discrepancies (what people think we do vs what we actually do) affect more than just our budgets and paychecks, they can actually affect performance. A new study published in the Academy of Management Journal entitled What Clients Don’t Get about My Profession: A Model of Perceived Role-Based Image Discrepancies found actual losses in worker productivity and performance when there is insufficient awareness about a profession. Click here to read a short post about this problem from the research blog, Science Daily.
Customer satisfaction survey’s in the fire service always seem to be overwhelmingly positive, yet every year we face station closures and staffing reductions. What gives? Well, while the people who’ve recently used our services are generally quite satisfied, a lot of people in the community haven’t seen us doing anything other than washing apparatus. We have an image discrepancy.
I know the fire service to be a brave and noble profession, filled with dedicated men and women. As an organization, we should be proud and eager to show our work to our customers, when it is appropriate to do so. Our citizens are rightly curious about what we do and how we do it. We are doing it on their dime, and besides, our work is exciting by nature (it’s one of the best things about this occupation). Show the public the dangers their firefighters are facing every day out there. It will likely go a long way in promoting overall understanding of our duties and generating good will toward the department. Keeping the public informed and educated about their department builds trust that is vital for weathering the occasional bit of bad press.
When used responsibly, helmet cam and other departmental video may have another important function that may seem counter-intuitive: Protecting privacy. Whenever there is a significant incident, the news media is hungry for footage. But the best footage is the stuff we have – right up close. If the media knows they can come to us for appropriate footage, they may be less likely to feature bystander video that may not have had any of its content edited to protect patient and personal privacy. This is not to say we should share videos of every incident we go to. We must be extremely careful never to supply anyone with raw video that could easily identify a patient or victim. But if footage of an incident is going to be shown in the media, it may be better that it come from the department, so we can exert some control over its content.
Working in the Sunshine
Helmet cams will always make some in the fire service (and in general counsel’s office) uncomfortable. That’s ok – they’re not required equipment. Internally generated fireground video may not be right for some individuals or organizations yet. But to wrap this up, let me say this:
Fact is, our operations are already being recorded. According to an ongoing study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 91% of American adults now own a cell phone – 82% of those regularly use their phones to take pictures. And that’s just the adults. Some 75% of children ages 12-17 own a cell phone. With nearly all phones having some capability for taking photos and/or video, you can be assured that any notable incident we are operating at is being filmed from multiple angles.
After being first in on this working fire, I discovered this video of it on YouTube that posted before we even got back to the station:
Regardless of our opinions about helmet cams, struggling to obscure our operations from the masses is becoming futile. Successful organizations in the private sector already know that in this age of unprecedented access to information, transparency is the new rule. We need to adopt a similar attitude when appropriate, or become less relevant and increasingly disconnected from the citizens we serve. Helmet cams are a tool of information, one which can be extremely powerful when used correctly.