News crews haven’t had a monopoly on live footage of breaking news and emergency situations in quite some time. Among other innovations, the proliferation of cellphone video — especially video taken by bystanders during first-responder interactions with citizens — has been a game-changer in recent years for the public’s understanding of such events.
Production companies including Big Fish Entertainment have also turned their cameras toward the real-life drama. And in “Live Rescue,” a Big Fish show currently airing on the A&E Network, St. Louisans are finding themselves in the spotlight.
Last April, the St. Louis Fire Department entered into an agreement with Big Fish to allow the company access to record the activity that surrounds calls for help and various crises that department personnel respond to on an everyday basis.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Erin Heffernan reported earlier this week, the department does not receive any money in exchange. But Captain Garon Mosby, public information officer for the department, is deeply involved with the production of “Live Rescue,” regularly traveling to New York City on Big Fish’s dime to help produce the Monday evening broadcast.
On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Mosby and St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at the collaboration and to answer the questions that “Live Rescue” raises among fans and critics.
Mosby explained that “Live Rescue” production crew members do regularly ride along with fire department personnel on calls.
“They ride with us, but it’s no different than, say, [if] you were to come out and want to ride with me — you have the same general access,” he said. “So they follow the [same] protocols, if you will, as a local journalist here … if they want to ride with me, they’re going to be privy to that.”
But personal spaces are off-limits without permission.
“For example, to go into someone’s home or to be in the back of the medic unit with an actual patient, that patient or that homeowner has to give consent — that’s a signed consent,” Mosby said, adding that “people like being on television, and when they learn that this is a documentary series basically showing the hard work of the women and men of the St. Louis Fire Department, the first responders, a lot of people sign on to it.”
Jenkerson noted that the fire department has final say before anything in its district airs during the sometimes nearly live portions of the show.
“With the appropriate delay, we’re watching these live feeds come in, and when I say ‘we,’ there’s two, three, four members of the fire department,” the chief said. “There’s also somebody on set who’s watching what’s going on live. And we have the ability to say, you know, even if they did agree to be filmed, we can kill it. We can look at it and say, ‘Nope, that’s not appropriate,’ whether it affects the individual, the citizen, the person who called for us, or [if] it might have an effect on someone who’s watching the program.”
Jenkerson also emphasized that St. Louis’ participation in the TV show has proved to be a good recruitment tool for the department.
“It provides people the ability to look at our job and say, ‘I think I can do that.’ … People come [to] us, and I’ll ask them, ‘Why do you want to be a firefighter? Why do you want to be a medic?’ And we’ve had a few of them say, ‘Well, I’ve been watching you guys on A&E, on ‘Live Rescue,’ and I want to give it a shot,’” he explained. “[And I’ll say] ‘Well why do you want to come to St. Louis?’ ‘Because we’ve seen you, and we see how good you are at what you do.’”
Neil Richards, the Koch distinguished professor in Law at Washington University and the director of its Cordell Institute, also provided comments to the talk show team, particularly regarding the privacy questions raised by the St. Louis Fire Department’s “Live Rescue” arrangement and other live- or near-live action shows. He thinks the St. Louis Fire Department’s participation could tread into some potentially tricky legal ground.
“Questions of reality television, particularly reality television that shines a lot into ordinary people’s lives unexpectedly, is fraught legal territory,” Richards said. “There’s a number of issues and areas here where the producers or the fire department could find themselves in hot water, so to speak. If a government official violates a person’s civil rights, including their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizures, the people whose rights are violated can sue, if it’s a state government, under a federal statute called Section 1983.
“And after the Wilson [v. Layne] case [that led to a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision], it’s clearly established that government officials who trespass onto other people’s property, if they exceed the scope of that trespass by bringing along the media, [they] can be liable in money damages in federal court.”
Mosby reiterated that the fire department and TV crews only enter into a private space if they have consent and that he agrees “100% with the Supreme Court’s ruling” from 1999 regarding Fourth Amendment rights.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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