A fire service leader in providing news to the public about its daily activities suddenly shut down the information flow on Sunday only to be told to turn the spigot on again. The news media started learning this week that the Los Angeles Fire Department, on orders of Chief Brian Cummings, was no longer providing key basic information about incidents, including the location of the response. This comes in the wake of an ongoing controversy about the department’s release of response time data that was not accurate. By late Wednesday, after complaints about the new policy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had overruled the chief, for now.
LAFD’s Media and Public Relations Office has long been at the forefront of providing information about ongoing incidents and the inner workings of the department through many platforms, including the Internet and social media. The LAFD News & Information site, as of late Wednesday night, still has the original order from Chief Cummings that was posted on Tuesday:
The following has been issued from the Office of the Fire Chief, Brian L. Cummings:
The City Council has designated the City of Los Angelesas a “hybrid entity” under the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 due to the Department’s status as a health care provider. As a hybrid entity, the Department must comply with HIPAA and is only permitted to release Protected Health Information (PHI) for the purposes of treatment, billing and operations under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, without the patient’s permission. In 2009, the President approved additional Federal legislation that increased civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of PHI.
The Department is currently seeking written advice from the City Attorney relative to the release of incident specific PHI to a variety of internal and external sources including elected officials, commissions, the media and associated stakeholders.
The City Attorney has preliminarily opined that the Department should immediately cease the practice of releasing PHI to any source not specifically authorized under the Privacy Rule’s treatment, billing and operations exemption. I realize that this practice will significantly impact the manner in which the Department provides updates and notifications to a wide variety of stakeholders. As the Department receives additional written advice from the City Attorney regarding specific issues, I will ensure that this information and the Department’s procedures will be forwarded for your information.
BRIAN L. CUMMINGSFire ChiefEarlier this week the LAFD Breaking News widget had details about fires but provided no address information. After Mayor Villagairosa stepped in locations of incidents are again being transmitted.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has ordered the fire department to stop a new policy of withholding key information on emergencies.
A letter Wednesday from Villaraigosa tells Fire Chief Brian Cummings to wait for the city attorney’s opinion before implementing the policy.
City News Service says the LAFD announced Tuesday that they had already begun limiting the release of information like locations of incidents and injury information in order to conform to federal medical privacy laws.
Villaraigosa said in response that the department needs “more transparency, not less,” and it is “our duty to provide information to the media and the public.”
City and fire officials had already been butting heads in recent days over the department’s new methods of counting fast responses to emergency calls.
“At a time when the Los Angeles Fire Department needs more transparency, not less, I am directing you to immediately resume releasing information that provides LAFD incident specifics without violating federal law,” Villaraigosa said in a letter sent to Fire Chief Brian Cummings this afternoon.
The department began limiting the information — such as incident locations and injury information — over the weekend to conform with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, a medical privacy law.
The policy change caused a strong backlash by City Council members and news organizations, who argued the information was necessary for public safety reasons.
The mayor’s unusually blunt order came after a day in which council members criticized the department for halting its years-long practice of providing the public with basic rescue response details, including times, locations and the nature of emergencies, as well as the age and gender of victims.
The sudden change in disclosure was announced earlier this week, even as the department struggled to reassure the public and city lawmakers about response time reports that made it appear that rescuers were getting to people in crisis faster than they actually were. A malfunctioning dispatching system that has delayed help for some victims in recent weeks has added to the department’s woes.
The mayor’s directive marks the first time since the controversy began that Villaraigosa has publicly broken ranks with Fire Chief Brian Cummings and his policies.
Citing a federal medical privacy law, the Los Angeles Fire Department announced today it would no longer provide the public with basic information about fires, medical calls, traffic accidents or other emergencies it responds to.
LAFD public information officers contacted by City News Service today about various fire calls — including a vehicle shearing a fire hydrant in North Hills and a collision between a food truck and a car in downtown Los Angeles that sent two people to hospitals — said they were not permitted to provide any information, including the locations of the crashes. In the case of the downtown collision, a spokesman refused to even confirm a wreck had occurred, even though footage of the crash had already been shown on at least one television news station.
The policy apparently took effect Sunday, when the LAFD began omitting the addresses from media alerts it circulates about fires or other incidents to which crews are dispatched.
For example, a media alert issued Saturday by the LAFD specified that fire crews had responded to a fire at 936 W. 49th St.
By Sunday, the department’s media alert about a reported fire in a three-story apartment complex included no address or general location of the blaze.
Cummings said the department is subject to the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, “and is only permitted to release Protected Health Information for the purposes of treatment, billing and operations under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, without the patient’s permission.”
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