Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this post, I wanted to get you thinking…What got YOU into this career of being a “Firefighter”? Was it a catchy add or employment opportunity you read one day, explaining how rewarding this career would be? Maybe a cool story you heard from your dad, or brother about a fire they went to? Now, either one of those may have led you ‘here’, but I think for most of us seeing dramatic news stories or photographs, along with watching a fire engine screaming down the street, lights flashing, ear piercing sirens blaring, and seeing fireman riding to an alarm to help people was probably more of the attention getters which ultimately led to your interest in this trade, whether it be career or volunteer.
The American Fire Service has always been a visual profession, and fortunately one that has been well documented throughout its history. From *Fire-Marks on the front of Colonial Houses in the 17 and 1800’s, to paint schemes on our apparatus, patches showing company and department pride, clean and well maintained apparatus and equipment, to the heroic images of firefighters saving lives and property from the earliest days of American Firefighting to the present. Needless to say, these images captured at those fires would breathe new life into future firefighters and also document moments in time, our history, that would otherwise had been forgotten. *(‘Fire-Marks’ were signs or plaque placed on the front of a building or residence which showed which fire company the occupant paid its fire levy tax to.)
So with those things said, imagine this profession from its formal inception in the early 1700’s to now, with no visual imagery or documentation from photos or paintings (as they did before photography around 1825). I remember vividly growing up with old paintings (re-creations of course) and photographs my dad owned hanging in our basement of fireman wearing stove-pipe hats and wool uniforms, to horse drawn steamer engines barreling down a city street. Moments in time documenting one of Americas oldest trades and professions; Firefighting.
When I joined my first volunteer fire department at 15 as a junior member, I spent a lot of time looking through old photo albums. The albums contained not only pictures of the department taking shape and helped me learn its history, but also of fires and other emergencies that they responded to throughout the years. There were also newspaper clippings and articles of calls documented by the local newspaper.
There was also a lot of time for watching all the ‘fire buff’ videos of Washington D.C., and the Fire Department of New York specifically. These video and the images captured are still engrained in my mind to this day, thanks mostly to my brother for buying them and always having them on. They would also play a major roll, even back then, towards my determination to work as a Washington, D.C. Fireman.
Several months ago I learned a neighboring fire department to mine implemented a strict policy that all personnel were prohibited from taking photos at the scene of fires and other emergency incidents. The department has even gone as far as frowning upon firefighters taking group pictures next to apparatus after fires and training, especially if the photos are shared or posted on social media sites. This seems to be happening more and more as departments try to gain control, or filter rather, what is appropriate and what is not.
Now, things have definitely changed since horse drawn steamer engines and wool uniforms. I joined the Fire Service in 1993 and it amazes me how much this profession has changed since then, especially in the past 10 years. Social Media, the internet, and the ability to share and process information happens so fast now it is almost hard to comprehend. Smart Phones and other electronic devices can instantly send a photo, documents, emails and other information to hundreds, even thousands of people instantly. So, one could see how detrimental this ‘sharing’ could be if the wrong information, or poor judgment was made posting a photo from the scene of an emergency or other public event.
However, to all but eliminate documenting our history and our profession as a whole is absurd to me, and does the Fire Service a huge dis-justice. I do understand posting photos of the public which may violate HIPPA and privacy laws obviously cannot be allowed. But keeping personnel from documenting defining events and moments in their career, and their departments history, seems crazy to me and goes against what most would consider a very traditional aspect of what we do as fireman; upholding the ‘brotherhood’ and being proud of what we do. Not to mention the elimination of capturing images of incidents that can be used towards our training, avoiding future mistakes, or having significant visual documentation should a formal investigation surrounding a close-call, death, or other event should occur.
What if no cameras where allowed back in the early 1900’s, through the 60’s and 70’s? Can you image the history, documentation and knowledge lost or not obtained? How are we suppose to come up with new training programs and learn from our mistakes, showing actual examples of the same, without visual documentation? I don’t know about you, but ‘Death by Power Point’ is bad enough…Can you imagine no photos? Im out, sorry.
The fire service as we know it today will be shaped much differently, at least from my perspective, if our history is not documented and shared. The department I am referring to is not the only organization taking these kinds of measures to limit or prohibit members from taking photos or videos at the scenes of emergencies. I’m fortunate to work in a pretty liberal Fire Department. If we grab photos at a fire (specifically) while following our written policy, members send them to our BC and Deputy Chief who will then proof the material and allow specific people to share the information and/or photos . We even have a ‘Facebook’ page and official city website sharing what we are doing in the community, job opportunities, informational and life safety videos, and yes, even showing the public some of the calls and emergencies we respond to. (Believe it or not, there are some people who still think the fire department is here for cats in trees.)
One thing I have heard since joining my first volunteer fire organization is that we as a Fire Service do a poor job of letting the citizens and governing officials (you know, the ones who approve our financial and budgetary needs) know what we do to keep them safe, and what we will continue to need when doing so. Visually expressing what we do, and having photos documenting incidents is a powerful tool justifying the “Why?”. We could tell someone stories and share experiences all day long, but, like the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
One of the most successful volunteer fire departments in the world, the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department, was one of the first departments I can remember having a professional website online, displaying their department pride, brotherhood, all while sharing images of fires and other significant events the department responded to through out its history. Now, this fire department responds to a lot of fires and ‘working’ incidents. By visually documenting the responses to these calls, as well as sharing training and leadership tips, they continue to excel and add new membership. Pretty easy concept, huh?
And, because of strong leadership and respect, the department does not post or display anything with a possible privacy concern, or things that could be taken as tasteless.
Now, I do realize most of the photos we see from almost 100 years ago were taken by the public and journalists, not by ‘on duty’ firefighters like we see today. I also acknowledge that social media did not exist and access to any photos of fires and incidents would have been limited to a select audience where a newspaper would be available. But, the fear of possible opinionated backlash or the typical “we don’t want to get sued” response cannot be the motivating factor behind implementing policy. I believe organizations residing on the side of “no photos at all, bottom line” should instead look into what can be gained not only through educating its members, but also marketing their organizations and showing the public they serve what they actually do. Including a filtering process through chain of command is essential and should be included as well. Members should always present themselves as Combat Ready Firefighters, and display professionalism at all times, even during those crew shots when the fire or incident is over.
It would be disheartening for us as a Fire Service to look back 5 years from now and say, “Wow…We have nothing to show our new firefighters, or the public we serve what we have done or accomplished, and have no visual documentation of our history as a department.” Through policy, good leadership, and strong expectations there can be a happy median reached, so we can continue to keep our profession, and its traditions alive and respected.