As a firefighter prepared to enter a burning home in Modesto’s airport neighborhood, flames burst through the window he stood next to. A flash of white fire hit him and embers whirled around his face.
The firefighter didn’t know at the time what caused the surge, but when he returned, uninjured, to the station after the incident, he reviewed the video from his helmet camera. He saw another firefighter spraying water into an adjacent window.
It was a “teachable moment,” said Capt. Buck Condit of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.
Firefighters learn in the academy to avoid standing near windows and doors because if a fire is being suppressed on one end, it is going to escape out of another like it did in this case.
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Having a video of it actually happening reinforces the point.
“It’s a huge teaching tool for not only our folks but for the public as well so they can understand what type of situations these guys are in and what we deal with on a day-to-day basis,” said Stanislaus Consolidated Deputy Chief Mike Wapnowski.
The department, which serves 523 square miles of the county, started using the special heat-resistant Fire Cams about two years ago, sharing some of the dramatic footage on its Facebook page.
Flames roll over the heads of two firefighters inside a burning convenience store in Empire in one video. In another, gray smoke encompasses a firefighter as he puts water on a big rig that burst into flames after a crash.
Firefighter Josh Leslie was wearing the helmet camera at the big rig fire.
“I like being able to record it and watch it,” he said. “Sometimes the cameras will pick up stuff that I didn’t notice or I just forgot, like instead of the door being open I kicked it open.”
Crews debrief after significant incidents to discuss what each person did, fire behavior, what challenges they faced and what could have been done differently.
The video adds another component to that.
“What we are finding out is that we are doing a pretty good job but there are some things we can always get better at, like deploying lines … or describing what we are seeing on the inside to the incident commander on the outside,” Condit said.
Wapnowski hopes to eventually use the video at the academy level as well.
“The guys can stand up there and instruct all they want, but this video reinforces everything that we are teaching,” he said. “Even though they go through hundreds of hours of fire behavior training, this video being available to us is outstanding because it shows exactly what they are going to be faced with as a new probationary firefighter.”
Similar in style and technology to the body-worn cameras many police departments use, their function within fire departments is quite different.
Police body cameras can be used for training but initially are utilized as evidence in criminal or internal affairs investigations. Because it is considered evidence, many departments, such as the Modesto Police Department, will not release the footage to the public.
Condit pointed out that the firefighter camera footage has the potential to be subpoenaed in an arson case, to identify a suspect who might have stayed at the scene, or be used in an administrative investigation if a firefighter is injured. In that case, it might be withheld from the public.
Most police departments have a policy that requires the officers to use them and dictates when they should use them, whereas use of the cameras at Stanislaus Consolidated is voluntary.
“Law enforcement has body cameras because they have a lot more public interaction from a different perspective than the fire service does,” said Eric W. Dutton, executive director of the California Fire Chiefs Association.
He said there isn’t a big public push for cameras in the fire service as there is in law enforcement, so it’s more a matter of budget.
“Thermal imaging cameras were a big deal a few years back,” Dutton said. The helmet cameras are similar in that “everybody wants to have them but not everyone can afford them.”
The Modesto Fire Department has a couple of cameras, said spokeswoman Jessica Smart, but at $250 apiece they are not a priority.
Condit said Stanislaus Consolidated is buying them slowly, using funds from its public information budget to buy a few each year.
Half of the department’s 18 firefighters have the helmet cameras now, and five more will get them in a few months. The goal is to eventually outfit every firefighter who wants one, then the department’s 24 captains.