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.

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