Almost everyone has a cell phone and since most cell phones also contain cameras, almost everyone has the opportunity to take a picture at will. While the rules of photography at EMS calls are not as clear as many of us would like, there are certain basics to remember.
The rules can be very different depending on WHO is taking the pictures and HOW they are eventually used. The general public, only if they can see (and photograph) the scene from a PUBLIC location, are usually not restricted in their taking or use of photographs; however MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS (any level) are constrained by HIPAA rules if they are in any way involved in response or treatment at the incident. (HIPAA rules apply to Doctors, Nurses, Clinics, Hospitals, Dentists, Chiropractors, EMS Agencies [including personnel], EMTs, Paramedics, and others INVOLVED in PATIENT CARE.) Especially in volunteer circles you might find an OFF-DUTY member who takes photos for a living; so long as they are in no way involved in the response and are not given inside information or access about the call or patient condition, they are usually outside of HIPAA policy.
The first rule of taking pictures at an accident scene or during ongoing patient care is company policy — many medical professionals have lost their livelihoods because of pictures they took. If the photo was taken to demonstrate MOI (method of injury) and passed along to the ER, for example, it is often without consequence and should be deleted once the report is complete. When an agency does encourage historical photos it is a good idea to provide a business-owned camera which does not remain in any individual’s off-duty possession.
While some agencies encourage historically photographing notable calls the pictures are often not meant to be used on personal social media sites, nor are they intended to identify patients and specific care, especially without the patient’s permission. Ambulance corps who do utilize photos taken on scenes may use these on their own websites or social media pages as part of a public relations campaign and needless to say should respect all HIPAA guidelines. No matter whether the agency is encouraging photography or allows individual members the opportunity, patient care is priority and should never be delayed or ignored in order to take a picture.
Photography at crime scenes can be a little stickier. Upon entering a potential crime scene, the crew should NOT disturb any evidence, walk through body fluids, remove any items/weapons, or move any furniture UNLESS it is necessary to gain patient access and provide treatment. If police are not already on scene a crew member might decide to photograph the scene as found to help preserve evidence; the camera (personal or agency) that contains this picture MAY be confiscated by police who are investigating the scene. While the camera can be confiscated without a warrant, unless the owner is cooperating, a warrant might be required in order for the police agency to search the camera contents. Obviously if the intent was to preserve evidence and aid in the investigation it makes sense to simply cooperate (which often has the bonus of an earlier return of the camera/phone).
No matter what the reason for taking pictures during emergency medical response, it is best to know and understand your agency’s policy about photographing incidents. Remember that NO MATTER WHAT patient care comes first. Remember HIPAA rules and preserve the identity and medical care provided for each patient; even with patient approval disclosure of this info is frowned upon and could lead to penalties. Be sure to delete photos from your personal camera taken for MOI or for agency use as soon as the purpose is fulfilled. If permitted, any photos posted should be used in good taste and without unnecessary identifiers.
Smile and say CHEESE!