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December 5, 2004
On Scene Safety
By Stephen Walsh
This week's article had been planned out to discuss equipment, however, this past week I observed some photographers practice unsafe behavior at a major fire scene in the City of Cambridge which prompted me to write about On Scene Safety this week.  

One of the most important things a fire photographer must learn is on scene operations for the fire ground, accident scenes and Hazardous Materials incidents. Fire Fighters and emergency personnel have enough to worry about at the scene of an emergency and do not need to be concerned with a photographer putting himself or herself in harms way and adding to their worries.
When responding to the scene, pay close attention to the radio communications. Command personnel will notify companies on scene and responding of potential or actual hazards such as downed wires, chemicals burning or potential collapse just to name a few. The fire I spoke about earlier in Cambridge involved a 4 story apartment building with rear porches. The fire was consuming all floors and the potential for a porch collapse was high. Command created a "collapse zone" which simply an area cordoned off around a building to prevent injury in the case of a collapse. I watched several news photographers and buffs enter into this zone to get video or photos despite being aware of the danger and several warnings about the collapse zone. 

Collapses are real hazards that photographers must be aware of. Here a roof caves in at a 5 alarm fire in Newton , MA. 
Steve Walsh photo
A Fire Fighter and Police Officer had to repeatedly remove these people from the zone and finally one person was removed completely from the scene or face arrest. This behavior will definitely not ingratiate one self to public safety personnel. Rule one, a photo is not worth having a porch land on your head. Trust me, it will hurt...a lot. Secondly, if you get arrested for interfering in a public safety incident, your future as a fire photographer is over plain and simple.
Accident scenes offer different hazards to watch out for. Several public safety officers have been struck by vehicles while operating at a motor vehicle accident. Just because you are there as a photographer does not make you off limits for being hit by oncoming traffic. Always park off the road whenever possible and if you are on a highway, put your hazard lights on. A reflective vest or coat with reflective striping should be worn to increase visibility. If you have been issued a set of turnout gear by your department, wear it by all means. Not only will this give you visibility but offers protection as well from many hazards. Watch out for fluid run off from vehicles as these present a fire hazard if a spark touches them off. You will notice that Fire Fighters always have a charged line ready when using the Jaws or other extrication equipment that might set off a spark. Most importantly, do what you are told at the scene. Following simple instructions and using your head will allow you to build the reputation of a professional with the Fire Department which is something you'll need for your future endeavors.
Over the years I have seen and done some stupid things at an emergency scene which could have been prevented by just simply paying attention and using commons sense. Winter fires present icing hazards and if you are so caught up in rushing to the building a getting your camera ready, chances are you are gonna go ice skating without skates and end up with a sore butt and broken camera when you fall. Rushing around and not paying attention can also lead to you doing a triple flip, double axle swan dive that would make an Olympic Gymnast jealous when you trip over a charged hose line. When you fall, there will be about a hundred people that saw what happened and you have just become the fire ground klutz.
The best way to learn about emergency scene operations is to simply respond to as many scenes as you can. Contact the training officer for your local fire department and ask if you can observe drills. This offers you a chance to not only learn tactics but also get some experience photographing action. When at the scene, dress for it. If you perform duties for your department and are authorized to be inside the lines, request permission to be issued a set of turnout gear and a helmet. Have the gear and helmet carry markings stating you are a photographer to prevent confusion at a scene. Use your scanner or 2-way radio to monitor conditions so you can be aware of hazards. Most importantly, use you HEAD!! There is no substitute for simple common sense in any situation you find yourself in.
Happy Shooting!!!!!!!
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Read Steve's prior article
Stephen Walsh
Steve's dad was a firefighter for four decades and his "career" spurned off chasing him around with his camera in Brookline, MA. Steve is a member of the International Fire Photographers Association, founding member of the International Fire Photography Organization as well as other educational associations related to photography. He freelances for a local newspaper and hase been published on many fire department web sites in the Greater Boston area. On a broader scale Steve is a contributing photographer for several fire service publications. 
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