Dash Cams and Firefighter Liability

Change comes hard to the fire service. We all know the worn out saying about 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. So it is understandable that firefighters in Orange County, Florida sought to block attempts by the fire department to install dash mounted video cameras on apparatus.

The details of the Orange County issue are covered quite well in the video at this link. However, the story raises a question that I am asked about regularly – whether dash cams are advisable from a legal perspective.  I am in favor of dash cams for several reasons. First, they document what happened. For better or for worse, they serve as objective evidence about such matters as: what color was the light, was the apparatus being operated responsibly, and was the other driver not paying attention (a pet peeve).

Second, dash cams force firefighters to recognize something they should already be assuming: they are being videotaped. Not that you need me remind you, but video cameras are everywhere. On virtually every response we go on, someone can be seen taking photos or video of the apparatus as it passes by. Traffic cams and security videos are everywhere. The presence of dash cams are just additional video documentation of firefighters’ activities.

Third, the knowledge that people are being video taped changes people’s behavior…. usually for the better.  I was in a law enforcement class today watching the Rodney King beating video and the inescapable conclusion one get’s from analyzing the video is that the officers involved had no clue that their outrageous behavior was being filmed. In fact, had the officers been aware their misdeeds were being recorded, the entire episode may never have occurred.

Will dash cams result in firefighters being held liable in some cases? Yes, absolutely undeniably yes…  but that alone should not be a deterrent to the use of dash cams. Firefighters should only be held liable when they SHOULD be held liable, when the video evidence shows they were at fault. The more likely scenario – and the one that should cause firefighters to embrace dash cams – is when the video evidence helps to exonerate a firefighter from baseless charges.  The reality is that it has already occurred.

On January 12, 2010, EMT Jason Fait of Penn Township, PA was acquitted of vehicular homicide based in large measure on the dash cam video from the ambulance he was driving in a 2006 accident. There are numerous documented cases of police officers being cleared of groundless accusations based on dash cam evidence.

So that’s my perspective. I think on balance dash cams will help firefighters more than hurt them. Here’s the link to the Orange County video.

 

 

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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