Firefighters vs. photographers: Tensions flare over arsons, First Amendment rights

Tensions are growing between Detroit’s fatigued firefighters and an increasing number of photographers and videographers who are documenting the fires.

In the past two months, photographers have been briefly detained, accused of arson, cursed at by firefighters and intentionally sprayed with water. A law enforcement official also smashed a photographer’s phone in late May.

Fire Commissioner Eric Jones said today he is aware of many of the allegations and has launched an investigation. He also issued a memo reminding firefighters that residents have a right to record fires, but they must be outside of dangerous areas, known as “Hot Zones.”

Photo by Steve Neavling.
Photo by Steve Neavling.

“It is a common occurrence for media personnel, photographers, and/or other individuals exercising their First Amendment rights to be on both Fire and EMS scenes,” Jones wrote in the memo. “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted to mean no government entity may curtail free speech and press activities.”

But, he added, “If Department personnel identifies that civilians have entered into the Hot Zone, they should courteously request those individuals to leave. Should individuals not follow that request, Department employees are expected to notify the Incident Commander or contact Dispatch and request police assistance.”

Earlier this month, a firefighter tried to chase a videographer from the scene of a fire.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave my fire scene right the fuck now or I’ll call the cops,” the firefighter yelled. “Start walking right fucking now. I’m going to put you down as a suspected arsonist.”

The photographer responded, “Go ahead,” noting that he has a right to record video on public space, as long as he is not impeding firefighters or too close to the fire. The video shows him standing across the street and away from firefighters.

In late May, a fire chief ordered firefighters to hose down a drone operated by Alex Haggart, a videographer and fire academy graduate who has more than 30,000 followers on Periscope because of his fire footage.  

Video shows the drone was nowhere near the fire and was landing when the hose was turned on the $1,000 drone.

“Firefighters are either very accommodating or extremely aggressive,” Haggart told me. “If I am too close, just ask me to back up a realistic distance and I will.”

Some fire officials officials said they are suspicious of photographers who often beat firefighters to the scene.

“We’re always curious when people beat us to the fire, beat the fire rigs to the fire. It does draw a question,” Chief of Arson Patrick McNulty told the Free Press today. “But there are a lot of people out here because they’re taking pictures for magazines or websites.”

Firefighters told us some photographers get in the way and seem elated to watch a house burn.

“They’re adrenaline junkies looking for a fix,” a firefighter told me, asking not to be identified because he doesn’t have authority to speak to the media. “They complain when there aren’t enough fires. This is entertainment for them. It’s sick.”

To be sure, fires in Detroit attract a lot of photographers from all over the country. Dozens of photographers and videographers are expected to flock to the city this weekend because July 4 has become more destructive than Devil’s Night. More than 60 fires broke out overnight on July 4 last year.

Most photographers aren’t adrenaline junkies, Haggart said.

“Most of them are firefighters who want to learn from watching Detroit,” Haggart, 34, said. “Detroit’s firefighters will go inside a house that is fully involved and other departments won’t. It’s a learning experience for firefighters from other departments.”

Haggart said photographers sometimes beat the fire department to the scene, especially at night because firefighters are sleeping in their quarters and photographers are driving around with a scanner.

“It’s not uncommon for me to find a fire,” Haggart said. “I’ve called in numerous fires,” including this morning.

Earlier this year, Haggart spotted a fire on the lower east side and banged on the doors of neighbors to make sure everyone was out. He doesn’t get paid for his videography and says he does it to spread awareness about the never-ending fire epidemic.

Haggart said he and other photographers have a lot of respect for firefighters and want to improve the relationship.

“A lot of the firefighters are really nice and come up and talk to us,” Haggart said. “But some of them don’t want us here, and they let us know about it.”

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Dean Henry

    From what I’ve read, it isn’t too hard to beat DFD to a fire…

  • oldcarman

    It should be noted that the City has a long habit of under-reporting arson fires in Detroit. A former DFD Chief Dispatcher told me typically it was 20-30& less. But when you have 600 fires it still doesn’t look good. Also, the weeks before & after Devils Night are still as bad. One night doesn’t fix anything…

  • Peter Smith

    Take a photo of this card and use it for life as it is free. This card is good in the USA as well as Puerto Rico.

  • Wow that’s ridiculous! I got this video today of a house fire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMhRsAAP6ok

  • Wow that’s ridiculous! I got this video today of a house fire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMhRsAAP6ok

  • JimTB

    Start having the Fire Investigator(s) and/or Arson Investigator(s) seizing their camera, and/or cellphones/smartphones, as evidence …..

    • David Patterson

      Better have a subpoena. Fourth Amendment does not allow search and seizure without probable cause on a warrant signed by a judge.

      • JimTB

        Most States have a Law which allows Fire/Arson Investigator(s) to seize camera and/or cellphones/smartphones as evidence if they are within one hundred (100) feet of the incident ….. Besides, you would have to have a “sitting” Judge on Duty to sign any warrant(s) and by the time you get one the person(s) taking the photos/videos are gone and you are watching them on the 4PM News ….. Then, you have “FREEDOM OF THE PRESS” tossed in your face ….. Nowadays it is a “Double Edge Sword” and “you are DAMNED if don’t and DAMNED if you do” ….. Like everything involving todays technology the laws are so far behind and the Law-Makers, at Local, State, and/or Federal level, have to much to watch what is going on the World today ….. Or, they just do not care …..

    • Klann Killa

      Or at the very least, walk a dog trained to sniff out accelerants around the “groupies”, and watch ’em squirm. I guarantee more than a few will get plucked off the streets, greatly reducing our fire service hours. Jus’ sayin’.

      • JimTB

        Depends of the incident ….. Small ones, “yes” ….. Large ones, the dogs would be used inside until they have worked the whole interior ….. By that time everyone who has taken photos and/or videos are gone and you are watching it on the 4PM News ….. Then, you have them asking for the warrants and yelling “FREEDOM OF THE PRESS” …..

  • D IN THE D

    It is cool as a firefighter to see the pictures from our fires. We obviously cant take them. The issue however, is we are photographed then sold to the highest bidder. We didnt sign up to model for your profit. Making it worse we must then BUY the photos of ourselves if we want them. Total crap. Its bad enough HALF of these guys feel entitled and get in the way, but then they want to charge us for the pictures they took of us without permission! Sad!

    • If you are in public, they don’t have to ask your permission..

      • D IN THE D

        Not true….cannot go around invading privacy by taking and selling photos of others. Many celebs have won this in court battles and continue to do so. Simply being in public does not open anybody up to be photographed and subsequently sold.

        • Jesse Rangel

          Please post anything that proves what you said. If you are in public view than you have no expectations of privacy. I haven’t met a firefighter yet that doesn’t like pictures of themselves in action. I also can’t say for certain but I’m pretty sure the underground firefighter picture market would be just about the same without your shots in it.

          • D IN THE D

            Its all over the news no need to post. The so called underground market would probably do better without me!! Lol there is some expectation of privacy in that we are NOT celeberties. Thats where they lose because they assume no privacy with their status….again all over the news. I have no issue with the fire paparizzi until they want me to buy the pics of myself. Yes we all like the pics as i stated earlier….kinda neat to see since we arent in the position to take em. But these….not all….scum wanna make money off of us then want to charge us too. Just stay away if thats the case. Matter of opinion i guess but i wont mind a hoseline in favor of them stayin dry.

          • James Harvey

            This is not true. As a PUBLIC safety official in a public setting like a fire has no expectation of privacy. The people taking those photos pay taxes which are used in turn to pay your salary.

          • D IN THE D

            They do not pay city taxes which in turn pays my salary. I also expect privacy not exploitation. Those who wantedbto be on camera were in the burn movie.

          • James Harvey

            Then don’t work for the fire dept. The supreme court has already ruled on this. The public has a right to photograph cops and firefighters. So maybe just do your job stop whining.

          • D IN THE D

            I would never quit because some scumbag has a fire hard on and wants to take pictures. And had you read all of my comments, instead of joining the conversation so late, you would see i am not whining. Just beware of the stream is all….it is also my right to put water where ever I see necessary. Oops was that camera expensive….darn.

          • So now you are threatening people you are freely exercising their 1st Amendment Rights…

          • D IN THE D

            No threat at all. Guess it is an expectation that I cannot see through the smoke. Ooops

          • Don’t worry about the camera. The money the photographer has made selling their images will buy a new one. And those of us who are smart have insurance that covers the damage anyways so it doesn’t cost us anything. You joined the fire department and get paid to put the fire out. That photographer may rely on the money made from the sale of his/her images in order to put food on the table. So don’t get upset because someone told you that you couldn’t have something for free. Personally, I have no problems providing photos to a department for investigative or training purposes. It keeps the working relationship positive. But the truth of the matter is, there is absolutely ZERO requirement for a photographer to obtain permission from a public employee in uniform conducting the duties of their job IN A PUBLIC SETTING in order to take photos. It is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. I find it funny that you love seeing the pictures of yourself in action, but when it comes to someone wanting to make a buck, it’s suddenly becomes a gross invasion of your privacy because you’re “not a celebrity”. You stick to fighting the fires, we’ll worry about taking the pictures.

          • D IN THE D

            So you can “make a buck” off me, but when I ask for a copy or two of a picture, yes free, thats not ok?? Its then not ok to take my photo and sell it. See the disparity?

          • The “make a buck” comment was referring to charging YOU for a photo. Like I said, some photographers rely on the sale of their images. That includes selling those images to the people that are in them. A lot of the fire ground photographers out there aren’t employed by a photo agency/media outlet. They spend their own time and money doing it. And it’s not just snapping a picture and printing it out. There’s a lot of time after-the-fact spent on processing, editing, and correcting the images. You don’t rush out and fight fires for free, right? You collect a paycheck. And that paycheck comes whether you get a fire or not. Out of curiosity, roughly how much was this photographer asking for the photo?

          • D IN THE D

            I have been asked for anywhere from $5-10 for a picture. I did not ask for a print or to steal their thunder by selling it to the news. An emailed copy is not asking much and cost the photographer nothing but a few seconds of his time. I rush to fight fires for a paycheck, yes of course. But you yourself said they are jobless. They could certainly help us by giving us a picture or two as a thank you gesture since they stand to make decent money off of us when they get a magazine or newspaper cover or the like. I dont need a processed or edited version, raw works since its only value is of a personal momento of the 1000’s of fires we go to over a career. I mean we could always establish hot and warm zones 1/2 to a whole block in diameter and then what kind of shots will they get and how much money will they make from those photos?? Dont get me wrong though, there is a small and select who always offer us pictures they take and we do not even have to ask. These same individuals stop in and say hi, they stay out of the way, and they usually follow us to fires instead of beating us to all of the actual fires…..never seen any of em at a false alarm.

          • D IN THE D

            I have been asked for anywhere from $5-10 for a picture. I did not ask for a print or to steal their thunder by selling it to the news. An emailed copy is not asking much and cost the photographer nothing but a few seconds of his time. I rush to fight fires for a paycheck, yes of course. But you yourself said they are jobless. They could certainly help us by giving us a picture or two as a thank you gesture since they stand to make decent money off of us when they get a magazine or newspaper cover or the like. I dont need a processed or edited version, raw works since its only value is of a personal momento of the 1000’s of fires we go to over a career. I mean we could always establish hot and warm zones 1/2 to a whole block in diameter and then what kind of shots will they get and how much money will they make from those photos?? Dont get me wrong though, there is a small and select who always offer us pictures they take and we do not even have to ask. These same individuals stop in and say hi, they stay out of the way, and they usually follow us to fires instead of beating us to all of the actual fires…..never seen any of em at a false alarm.

          • Klann Killa

            When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging “kid.” As long as you don’t catch one running from a dwelling, or he doesn’t interfere with what you have to do, fu-k ’em. Years ago, I had one try to help me “flake out”, and proceeded to knock him on his fat, outta shape, middle aged ass, and then begged the cop not to arrest him just so I could laugh at his fat ass after the fire was out. “Him” was mad Bro ? You’ll get your chance, just make DAMN SURE you do it right.???? Stay low, hit it high ? Peace ✌?️

    • banmar

      It would be pretty awesome of some of these photographers to offer prints of the firefighters working the fires to the department for display in the fire stations. That might help smooth some ruffled feathers and also add to DFD history.

  • Towniesphotos

    Anyone who thinks the photographers are setting these fires are just plain ignorant. Detroit has 80K vacant buildings and is a gang ridden city. I would focus on the gangs as opposed to photographers. The Union representing the Firefighters and its leadership welcome any and all help they can get documenting how much the city has failed it’s Fire Department and its members. Detroit would not have so many problems if the Democrats would stop stealing money earmarked for the fire department. From my experience, more than 95 percent of Fireman in Detroit are friendly to fire photogs. As in any profession, you get bad apples. Just like a photog may be a bit over aggressive at getting the shot or may in fact be a jerk. I’m sure there are Firmean that are also Jerks. My interactions with Detroits Bravest have been nothing but good willed and friendly. Everyone knows who the jerks are and fireman and photog alike stay away from them.

    • Donald E. Hodge

      I `m sure its only the Firemen that are Democrats that act out, Right?

      • Towniesphotos

        I don’t get your question. I don’t care what your political affiliation is. My opinions are formed by years of training and experience on 1000’s of emergency scenes as a Police Officer (very busy department) for 20 years, Firefighter for 10 years, EMT, Instructor and as a free lance Photo Journalist for over 30 years. Democraticly controlled cities such as Detroit are failing. Not because of any Fireman, Cop or EMT! They are failing because of poor leadership and crooked politicians. To blame fires on Photographers is ludicrious and not backed by any sound facts. As in any profession, bad or evil people may exist but they don’t represent the group as a whole. That goes for photographers and public safety persons. I don’t understand why filming the scene bothered the Fireman so much. Fortune 500 companies and CEO’s would pay millions for free publicity. Most all photographers at these scenes are doing it for the love of documenting history and showing what the Bravest do every day. I am more than proud to represent this group on all sides. My photographs have never been sold to any Fireman. They are free to any Fireman. Please stay safe and remember we are there for you and we are your biggest fans!

        • Donald E. Hodge

          I agree with what your saying 100%. What my meaning was that going through history of Detroit it seems that no matter what your politics are, about 85% of the mayors of our city have stolen from the people and the city. As far as Photo sharks setting Fires? most likely not. All you have to do is put a scanner in your car, you will find a fire.

          • oldcarman

            Funny thing how so many of these fires are in buildings devoid of electricity or gas. Adding a few more arson investigators, & questioning bystanders & witnesses would help a lot…

          • Donald E. Hodge

            Your right, But even the folks down at HQ for the Fire Department would love to have Arson investigators role on all major Box alarms but they don`t have enough people to investigate the large volume on the books now. Perhaps soon, now that the Detroit Fire Department has a good team of Leaders and not bozos running it, more will be promoted to the Arson Squad.

      • Towniesphotos

        I don’t get your question. I don’t care what your political affiliation is. My opinions are formed by years of training and experience on 1000’s of emergency scenes as a Police Officer (very busy department) for 20 years, Firefighter for 10 years, EMT, Instructor and as a free lance Photo Journalist for over 30 years. Democraticly controlled cities such as Detroit are failing. Not because of any Fireman, Cop or EMT! They are failing because of poor leadership and crooked politicians. To blame fires on Photographers is ludicrious and not backed by any sound facts. As in any profession, bad or evil people may exist but they don’t represent the group as a whole. That goes for photographers and public safety persons. I don’t understand why filming the scene bothered the Fireman so much. Fortune 500 companies and CEO’s would pay millions for free publicity. Most all photographers at these scenes are doing it for the love of documenting history and showing what the Bravest do every day. I am more than proud to represent this group on all sides. My photographs have never been sold to any Fireman. They are free to any Fireman. Please stay safe and remember we are there for you and we are your biggest fans!

    • javierjuanmanuel

      Not all of them, not all the time. Sometimes one or two guys, maybe ?

      For sure.

      Want to know how to get all the best action shots to show off to your photo buff buddys, be there right when the fire starts. Thats not easy, unless you start a fire.

      I bet they do want stuff documented, they are hardcore heros, are the hardest dudes out there in public service in maybe the whole country minus special forces teams, but they can make a move for it by the amount of action they see and for how many years. DFD sees more action in a week, than you might see working full time in ten years in a nice suburb.

      If you work for two weeks, you fight more fire than 95% of the firemen fight in 20-30 years.

      But that being said, they do not report to photogs, and like almost all city employees they do what they want, they are borderline untouchable, they can say whatever they want to you, make trouble for you etc and nothing happens. They do not want you in their way one second, slow them down one bit, or make them look bad even if they made a mistake.

      • Klann Killa

        Wooooww!!! That’s pretty big coming from you Dogg. Appreciate the props. No shit!! ?????????? Agree with MOST of what you said ? LOL. Peace ✌?

      • Klann Killa

        Wooooww!!! That’s pretty big coming from you Dogg. Appreciate the props. No shit!! ?????????? Agree with MOST of what you said ? LOL. Peace ✌?

    • javierjuanmanuel

      Not all of them, not all the time. Sometimes one or two guys, maybe ?

      For sure.

      Want to know how to get all the best action shots to show off to your photo buff buddys, be there right when the fire starts. Thats not easy, unless you start a fire.

      I bet they do want stuff documented, they are hardcore heros, are the hardest dudes out there in public service in maybe the whole country minus special forces teams, but they can make a move for it by the amount of action they see and for how many years. DFD sees more action in a week, than you might see working full time in ten years in a nice suburb.

      If you work for two weeks, you fight more fire than 95% of the firemen fight in 20-30 years.

      But that being said, they do not report to photogs, and like almost all city employees they do what they want, they are borderline untouchable, they can say whatever they want to you, make trouble for you etc and nothing happens. They do not want you in their way one second, slow them down one bit, or make them look bad even if they made a mistake.

    • Klann Killa

      Blah, blah, blah. YOUR political spin on the city’s woes is both unsubstantiated, and regurgitated. After over 20 years with “The Baddest Department ” in the world (still VERY active, and a recipient of the Earl J Berry Medal of Valor “), please explain to me why the groupies NEVER show up at FALSE box alarms? Please explain to me why I can see a pack of groupies at a fire in the 5th battalion at a fire, and then see the SAME pack at a different working fire (always vacant, and rolling of course) set-up and filming deep in the 7th battalion 15 or so miles away, twenty mins. later with 4or5 “box alarms” in between? No lights, no siren, just a scanner and GPS. Never see them at “first engine, and truck” fires. Lastly, who knows better than a firefighter about fire behavior? Not do we have the knowledge to suppress them, we also know how to get them “going.” That being said, you better warn your “little groupie buddies” that if we catch one “lighting one up”, we’re gonna take his ass apart, that my friend is a promise ?????? ( ps, your post was just plain ignorant) ?????????

      • Donald E. Hodge

        Miss You Man, What`s Happening?

    • Donald E. Hodge

      so the Police have never made an arrest of a Photographer arsonist? if you were a cop like you claimed, you would know that`s a false statement

  • MotorCityPhoto

    Just to note. The firefighter in the above video is not a battalion chief, he is the driver of one of the rigs. I would hope that a BC would not walk off the scene and jeopardize the safety of his crew to speak to a photographer.

    • muckraker_steve

      Thanks for the clarification. I am changing that now.

      • MotorCityPhoto

        Thank you

  • Robert M. Rovinsky

    Seems like strange logic and counter productive actions even if the actual arsonist is there. Still, these guys carry quite a burden and respect is well earned. There are two sides to the story of course. So with CSI episode 16409 fresh in my mind here are some random thoughts: Maybe having arson investigators on scene interviewing bystanders would be more revealing. Video recording or photographing the crowd for comparison to other crowds while looking for recurring attendees might be of value. (job for photographer or drone operator?) Lastly, do inspectors have the power to arrest a suspect on the spot? If not then should a cop roll along with the rig?

    I would think the pros would have a method beyond benign tolerance or lashing out.
    Ultimately though, in the case of arson, it is a community problem; an economic problem; an educational system problem; and a family problem. As I see it the guys with axes, hoses, and oxygen masks are there because of failures within those systems. Let’s give them some elbow room and address those issues making their job as shitty as it is. imho

    • oldcarman

      The main problem is a cultural issue. It goes right along with looting, stick ups, and theft. It isn’t educational or economic, but is how the community or village perceives the world.

  • Donald E. Hodge

    I always tried to live my life by the thought and words That ” There are two sides to ever Story” And I do see each side here. Another issue for myself is That I have always tried to put myself in a position that their are two groups of people that I never want to Piss off. The Police and the Fire department. The reasons being that one day I might need them and by God I sure want them to show Up. 🙂