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Do the Write Thing

Fire departments risk burning bridges with online photos

Seven months ago, on a Wednesday, my phone rang just before 3 a.m. with a number I never wanted to see at that hour — my mother. From her front porch in Chittenango, she was watching news crews set up outside of a house fire that called in 14 fire departments from across Madison and Onondaga counties. The house was my aunt’s, a home that I spent much of my childhood in. I called in to work at a Rochester-area newspaper, hopped in my car and sped to Chittenango, grappling with the what ifs on the two-hour drive home, trying to imagine the total loss that had occurred that morning.

Fast forward a few months and I’m working as a reporter, covering the very fire departments who responded to my aunt’s home. I visit their Facebook pages and websites to see what they’re up to — I fully support showcasing the good things fire departments are doing.

Imagine my surprise when I go on an eastern Onondaga County fire department’s web page and I see, front and center, a blaring photo of my aunt’s house.

Then I see another. And another. And the final straw, in mid-December, when a delayed photo post on the Madison County Fire Department’s Facebook page appeared.

The photo was taken from the middle of Route 5, early in the morning of June 22. Five firefighters sit on the edge of a rose garden that boasts a Catholic statue. Steady streams of water from hundreds of feet of hose pour on the two-story house while flames rip through the balloon-frame structure. The neighborhood’s filled with smoke from the visible flames on either end of the house.

I looked at the photo and started crying. I showed my mother, but she couldn’t look. The photo was raw, and you could tell it was from the early hours of the fire — firefighters were on scene well into the late morning. Beneath the photo, an individual “liked” it. A single thumbs-up to an unimaginably bad day for the Seef family.

For those firefighters responding, it was a fully-involved structure fire -- a proud moment where volunteers came together and worked to save a person’s home. Nothing but a hard fight was given by all fire departments involved, and the entire family is thankful, each day, for the hours of tough fire fighting they had to do for the huge, 200-year-old house.

But, the flames in the front of the house were just that - flames - to firefighters and onlookers. To family, it was flames ripping through my cousin’s bedroom, where her two toddlers would typically have been sleeping. Thankfully, they weren’t home that night. There was no explanation that a 20-year-old female and her parents made it out OK; an explanation that their dog and cat were lost. An explanation that the home had been in the family for the better part of the 20th century, and that the current owner grew up there, as did her kids, and her kid’s kids. Wedding photos, children’s photos, family heirlooms and furniture were all lost. That story went untold.

Instead, the story said “Structure Fire, 6/22/11,” with a thumbs-up below.

I am having a hard time grasping why a fire department would post such a poignant photo in a public forum. As a journalist, we often post moving photos, but we do it with context — a simple explanation of the story behind the fire. I support and encourage fire departments to be recognized for the hard work that they do. I am incapable of doing their job, and I admire each man and woman for putting their own lives on the line. I recognize sharing photos of good work by a department is a way to show taxpayers the good job they’re doing for a good value, or a good way to showcase the department saving lives.

But I deeply, strongly urge fire departments to come to terms with the new digital age. New mediums mean a message is being broadcast to a bigger audience. Monitoring the information you put online - and providing context for such - could go a long way. You never know who may be looking.

Comments

FDPhotopher 2 years, 10 months ago

Amanda i can understand your concern but did you contact the fire department to understand why many fire departments post pictures of incidences. These types of pictures can be used for training purposes. I'm sure there was no malicious intent. You talk about the media avenues and to be cautious, your comments make all fire departments out to be out bad. I would suggest you talk to people first and get more back ground information before going public. I'm confident in your normal reporter responsibilities you make every effort to get the whole story as a rule to write a story but I wonder what happened in this case.

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ncampbell 2 years, 10 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Amanda Seef 2 years, 10 months ago

Thank you for your concerns, FDPhotopher. This is actually my column and this is purely opinion, showing the personal impact. I have talked about this issue with fire departments and just wanted to get this out there, again, as a personal story.

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120Firefighter 2 years, 7 months ago

Amanda, let me start off by saying that I am sorry for your loss. Now in regards to your post I think that everyone knows that the 1st amendment allows those pics to be posted as well as the law stating that a photographer owns the pics he/she takes and has full rights to them, and can share them as the photographer sees fit. Now if you were to go through my cell phone and FD website you will find pics and a vid of that house ( Rt 5 & Canaserega Rd) on them. Part of it is because yes, as firefighters, we have a fascination with fire and accidents. We share such photos with each other to show how serious or interesting of a call we were on. My FD was the 2nd Dept on scene of 'your' house fire. So naturally we will have pic and vids to show our friends and family what we are doing, what we did. Also, the general public has a right to know (legally I believe) of what and where 911 calls take place. Just like the police blotters on the news papers. Yeah people may not like seeing certain texts or images of such events but it's the public right. Also, we have pics from 'your' house and other houses and calls on our website for these additional reasons: The public wants an has a right to know where and what their local FD is doing, and seeing that their tax dollars are going to good use. These pics help to spark interest in people to join the local FD, ( which we all are in desperate need of more members). It can serve as a call history of each dept, again which is a legal thing, and as mentioned before it can be used for training purposes.

I don't mean to rant and rave and be offensive but people are going to get offended. That's the nature of the beast. Of course other people are going to 'like' an image. The general public will never understand why until they become active firefighters. While firefighters are in the biz to put ourselves out of biz, we really do enjoy responding and 'playing' at calls. Not because we hate people an enjoy to see them suffer, but because we train and train and train, an then on a call we can put all our training to use.

But again, Amanda, the only way you, your family, and anyone else will understand how and why we do what we do, is by becoming a firefighter. I'm not trying to be mean ( especially when we went to Chittenango HS together). And on a side note, if you take offense to such images, why are you posting them on this post? Just saying...

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120Firefighter 2 years, 7 months ago

Well first off, I want to make it clear that I do not mean to offend any one on purpose, but I'm sure it's gonna happen. Amanda, my FD was the 2nd one to respond to the Rt 5 & Canaserega house (from here on out I will refer to it as 'your' house). If you go through my phone, computer, or FD website you will find various pics of 'your' house on them. Why? Easiest way to explain it is: I can't. If you want to understand how and why we think how we do, then you need to join an FD, throw on a SCBA pack, and join the fight. Yes, pics make us proud, being able to reflect on what we did, show others how big of a job we did, how dangerous the job was, etc... Now on the legal side of it, any picture taken by a photographer is his property and can share it and print it as he sees fit. We're protected by the 1st amendment, so we legally can display that photo. Showing the pics can hopefully spark an interest in someone, who may turn around and join a FD (which we all need members, badly too!). The public has a legal right to know about 911 calls, the locations, and depending on the situation: who what when where why and how someone/ something was involved. The tax payers want to see that their taxes are being used properly and the pics also can increase the tax payers knowledge of the conditions of 'their' fire gear and FD. As firefighters we train & train & train, and we don't always have the opportunity to put our training to the ultimate test, so of course when we get a call, we're gonna share what ever images we have with others. Pics have been used as training tools, and have even helped in the training of fire investigators. We don't wish for people to get hurt or lose everything in a fire, but that's what fascinates us. While your family ran out of 'your' house, we ran in. Looking for the animals and trying to save what we knew was built to burn down. You complain about the pic of 'your' house burning Bering shown to the world, but what about police blotters? How is it fair that a person and their personal info gets advertised to the public for something as small as a poor decision? Exactly, it's legal public info. And btw, if you're so offended by the pic, what are you showing it to the public on this post? Thought you didn't like that.... Just saying....

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