New Orleans EMS and Nightwatch respond to a motorcycle crash in the Marigny on July 7. Photo courtesy of Michael Straka.

A motorcycle crash in the Marigny on the night of July 7 has raised concerns from neighbors about the response from New Orleans Emergency Medical Services, which brought along a production crew for the A&E reality show, “Nightwatch.” The show follows the city’s EMS service from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.*, and resumed shooting in the city late last year.

Several neighbors who posted their accounts to social media claimed that EMTs prioritized camera access over care. But EMS officials and 44 Blue, the production company filming the show, say that both cameras and EMTs followed protocols, and that the patient did not receive substandard care. 

The disputed accounts of the emotional incident highlight broader concerns over having a TV crew filming people during traumatic incidents. Reality shows like “Nightwatch” have come under criticism in recent years in part because they are given access to people in vulnerable moments, and are often unable to obtain consent prior to filming. A patient featured on a prior episode of “Nightwatch” in New Orleans complained that identifying details about their medical care were broadcast without their permission.

In initial accounts shared with the Lens, three witnesses said they believed that the presence of cameras slowed down care and caused conflict between the responding team and the bystanders.

New Orleans EMS spokesman Lt. Jonathan Fourcade disputed parts of those accounts in a statement to The Lens. Based on a review of “Nightwatch’s” camera footage, he wrote, “New Orleans EMS medics did their job appropriately and efficiently. It also seems that [the] 44 Blue crew did everything appropriately.”

Rasha Drachkovitch, the show’s executive producer, wrote in a statement that “44 Blue Productions has always maintained strict newsgathering protocols and comprehensive training for our field crews to ensure that patient care and safety is paramount. The [role] of our camera operators is to document the challenging work of NOLA’s EMTs and the community they serve.  In this case, a review of the footage confirms that all appropriate protocol were adhered to and the field crew operated appropriately – documenting the work without any interference with EMS or delay of care for the victim.”

The Lens was allowed to view footage of the incident filmed by the production crew. It appears to confirm most of the specifics of the NOEMS statement. In the videos, it appears that medics did provide quick treatment without stopping to interact with cameras.

However, the cameras were a source of conflict during the response, and neighbors say that lack of communication around their role made them question the care provided.

“I don’t want to blame EMS. They do heroic work,” said Veronica Alweiss, one neighbor who posted an account of the event on Facebook. “The point I want to be making is simply what we saw. People there questioned the focus of EMS given what was occurring with cameras … and also the chaos that ensued.”

Crash and eyewitnesses

Based on surveillance video from a neighbor provided to the Lens, the incident began when a man riding a motorcycle down the 900 block of Touro Street crashed and slid into a parked car.

Michael Straka, who lives on the block, said he heard a motorcycle revving its engine, and then a crash. He and his partner went outside. 

“I was the first person out on the scene,” he said. “I didn’t actually see the guy until a group of people from the bar next door ran over, and then I realized that he was pinned under the vehicle.”

“There was blood all over his arms and legs,” Straka remembered. “His pants were just bloodied, his face was down in the water.”

Straka said that he called 911 around 11:15 p.m. City 911 records show a report of a vehicle crash with injury at 11:18, and that first responders arrived on scene at 11:31.

Surveillance video provided to The Lens by Straka shows an ambulance arriving, followed by an SUV. From Straka’s point of view, the first people to emerge from the rear of the ambulance were four cameramen. His partner, Michael Chatell, said that it appeared that the first person to approach the motorcyclist was a cameraman who crouched down for a shot.

In the NOEMS statement provided to the Lens, Fourcade contested that account.

“At no time did a camera operator get crouched down in front of the patient. The medics got out of the ambulance before the cameras. The stretcher was immediately taken out of the ambulance,” 

Videos from the tailing SUV and “Nightwatch” cameras show a complicated scene. The first person out of the ambulance appears to be an EMT, who exits from the right side of the cab, and immediately walks to the motorcyclist.

“Hi, is he awake?” the EMT asks as she crouches down with a trio of people surrounding the man.

“Ok, yep, he’s awake,” she then says. She tells a man to hold the motorcyclist’s head, and then stands and walks to the ambulance and begins unloading a stretcher. She asks another EMT standing at the back of the ambulance to get tools for stabilizing the motorcyclist’s spine.

At the same time, cameramen are moving around the motorcyclist, and one stands a few feet behind the parked car filming the early interactions from above. From the shots provided to The Lens, it doesn’t appear that any crouched down in the first seconds of the response.

When the Lens described that sequence of events to Chatell, he said that he distinctly remembered a cameraman running from the trailing SUV to get a quick shot under the car. “Those camera lights are bright,” he said. Based on Chatell’s description of the route, it’s possible that the other camera angles wouldn’t have picked him up.

However, surveillance video from a nearby condo association shows one camera operator kneeling on the sidewalk a few feet away from the motorcyclist, before a bystander moves in front of him to block the shot. He then steps back. Straka and Chatell say that this moment occurred several minutes after the vehicles first arrived. Alweiss says she witnessed it as well.

Straka and Alweiss also say that it appeared that one EMT gave an on-camera interview at the back of the ambulance before attending to the motorcyclist. Cell phone video that Straka provided to the Lens appears to capture the moment Straka and Alweiss referred to: An EMT stands at the back of the ambulance and pulls out a spine board while facing a camera. 

Fourcade disputed that the EMT was giving an interview. And in the “Nightwatch” footage, the EMT doesn’t address the camera, and appears to be gathering equipment from the ambulance before the camera operator walks away.

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, New Orleans EMS Director Dr. Emily Nichols also defended the conduct of EMTs.

“In regards to Nighwatch, we set guidelines prior to the beginning of filming. Each employee that has been filmed or has been part of ‘Nightwatch’ signed an agreement ensuring that patient care remains the priority. That was also followed with policies by 44 Blue ensuring the same.”

In videos she reviewed, she said, “I have seen an instance where the provider involved is removing a spine board from the ambulance, and did not make any verbal statements to my recollection. And similarly, as the stretcher is coming out of the ambulance, it does take a period of time for the electronics to work. But there was no point in which the provider delayed care while conducting the routine activities.”

‘This is not entertainment’

“I do feel awful if I got some of this wrong,” said Alweiss on Thursday morning when told that “Nightwatch” footage appeared to show EMTs properly attending to the patient. “It sure is what it looked like to us. There’s no motive for us” to make up the story, she added. 

Still, it’s clear that cameras were a source of tension, a point that she, Straka, and Chatell all repeated.

“We’re not trying to beat on EMS, we’re not trying to beat on the show. We’re saying it was very insensitive, and it inflamed people,” Chatell said.

In an initial statement, Fourcade wrote, “There is a moment when a hostile bystander interfered with care.”

Asked to confirm that detail, Nichols said, “That’s not a question that I think I could answer very easily, or is fair to the providers. Certainly interference is a variable concept. Some persons will be distracting just by their communications verbally.”

“There certainly were bystanders involved that were very emotional,” she continued after being asked if an EMT had reported interference. “Our providers had to ask them to give the providers space to do their work.”

From the film crew video, however, the cameras appear to be the center of the conflict. When the EMTs first arrive, there’s some chatter between bystanders, but the scene is relatively quiet. When the first EMT first leans down to the patient, a trio of people step back to give her room.

But about 15 seconds later, someone begins yelling in the background. Much of the yelling is inaudible at first. Then a woman steps in front of one camera, waving: “This man did not consent to y’all having cameras on him while he’s in the middle of an emergency.”

“This is not entertainment, ya heard me?” a man yells.

“We’re filming the paramedics,” a man can be heard responding. However, the videos taken by “Nightwatch” do zoom in on the patient himself.

From another video taken by Straka, the bystanders who are upset at the presence of the camera crew can be seen standing at least 10 feet back from the patient, face-to-face with a group of people holding cameras. Straka said that someone who identified herself as an NOEMS supervisor yelled at a woman to get out of the way of cameras.

Asked if she found the role of cameras in the interaction concerning, Nichols said, “The cameras are secondary to our daily work. The providers did not alter their care. That is an additional component, similar to if any bystander on scene had a camera in a public space.”

When 44 Blue signed a contract with the city last fall, it made the production company responsible for obtaining written consent from patients. The contract also indemnified the city from lawsuits based on privacy concerns. However, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has sued various healthcare providers for providing film crews access to protected health information. According to an HHS document, the central issue is that film crews aren’t allowed access to that information without prior consent except under specific contractual obligations. Fourcade referred questions about the regulations to the production company.

“HIPAA privacy rules do not apply to filming in public spaces,” wrote Dan Silberman, senior vice president for communications at A&E. “44 Blue’s production protocols specify that no footage of a patient will be released from inside an ambulance or a healthcare facility without the written consent of the patient.” He also clarified that the production company’s policy is to not enter an ambulance without receiving prior consent.

According to the contract, cameras can go in the back of the ambulance. Last year, Drachkovitch also told The Lens that based on the COVID threat level, producers wouldn’t be entering ambulances.

Alweiss wondered what potential harms a patient could face while being filmed.

“Even if the timing was appropriate for the situation,” she said, “the point is, the show doesn’t seem to be factoring in the emotional stress of running a reality show concurrently with taking care of a victim. … I’ve said, if this is your mother, your wife, your boyfriend, your son, your daughter, would you want the first thing they experience to be a reality show camera?”

“If that’s their protocol, let’s take a step back and look at: is this really good for the victim? Is this really good for the community?”

Both she and Straka said that there was little communication with residents about the purpose of the cameras.

“I respect anyone who may have concerns for the well-being of their neighbor or a family member,” Nichols said. “And every person in our agency wants the same respect and love and compassion, and we take that very seriously.”

“Others don’t run 1,500 calls a week,” she continued. “We do. So we recognize that it might be stressful if you don’t do this work regularly. But our providers recognize and care for our community as much as our neighbors.”

Correction: The story initially misstated filming hours.