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Make sure you read FireLawBlog.com's Curt Varone's primer on HIPAA and his view of this hysteria. Also, here's a further explanation on how this latest HIPAA showdown came about. It's from AP's Robert Jablon:
Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said that during a Wednesday meeting with a deputy city attorney and the Fire Department's privacy officer, he was told that he couldn't release certain information because it might violate the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
"We could not speak to anything that would even remotely identify a person" who had been injured, including detailing whether a vehicle in a crash was, for instance, a school bus or municipal bus, Humphrey said.
"I was told in an earthquake, I could not provide information unless it was a federally declared emergency," he said.
When the pre-dawn fire erupted, Humphrey said he had no choice but to halt the department's Twitter feed, which automatically relays to other social networks.
At 11:35 a.m., the city attorney's office told the department to return to its previous practices on releasing information, Humphrey said.
A city official familiar with details of the Wednesday meeting said the discussion was misunderstood and the Fire Department overreacted.
The city attorney's office said in a statement that "The Fire Department's decision to reinstate its Twitter account and release details on this morning's fire is the right thing to do."
At about 1:45 PM Los Angeles time, the following tweet was sent from Brian Humphrey on @LAFD. So never mind, at least until someone goes HIPAA crazy again on the West Coast:
Here's how it went down this afternoon according to Kevin Roderick at LA Observed:
As soon as the Times called to ask what's up, Mayor Eric Garcetti put out a statement (through spokesman Yusef Robb) telling the LAFD basically "don't be ridiculous."
"Frankly, it's ridiculous. We immediately told the department to fix this, and it's being fixed. The twitter account is going back online, and they're going to be giving out the information they're supposed to be giving out."
Robb said the fire chief learned about the policy change from the media. I guess whoever made the original call at the LAFD didn't know that the mayor is an inveterate user and admirer of Twitter as a communications tool. Shortly after the mayor's statement landed, the fire department surrendered and re-activated its feed @LAFD.
What I failed to notice but others, including my friend Bill Boyd, pointed out, is that just hours before this edict came down, word arrived that LAFD's Brian Humphrey will be honored in the spring by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) for his work in social media and public information. Coincidence? Here's more from Kevin Roderick, LA Observed:
The SPJ will also recognize LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey "for his dedication to providing access to reporters." The group says: "[Humphrey] has worked to bring transparency to the Los Angeles Fire Department through social media. These efforts include a robust Twitter account, blog and even a Web camera that often shows Humphrey at work."
Absolute craziness in Los Angeles, where the agency that paved the way for how a modern public safety organization communicates with its citizens and the press once again has it's operation shut down. This time there is a notice on the Los Angles Fire Department News & Information website and it's social media platforms that they are on "temporary hiatus". And yes, according to news accounts, it appears to be more HIPAA BS.
For the second time in as many years, a Los Angeles city lawyer is being blamed for reading a lot more into the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act than most level-headed people/lawyers/chiefs/PIOS across the country. HIPAA is being used as an excuse not to keep the public informed about the basics of an emergency. It's so bad that veteran PIO Brian Humphrey was unable to to acknowledge details about evacuations and injuries from this morning's double fatal fire in Echo Park.
Early this morning, LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey described the damage to the building as “significant” but declined to release details on such aspects as evacuations and injuries, even any involving firefighters, based on what he described as instructions received Wednesday from the City Attorney’s Office.
“All of our social media is on hiatus until we get clarity and develop a plan of how orders are to be implemented in regard to our social media presence,” Humphrey said.
In a subsequent interview this morning, LAFD Battalion Chief Steve Ruda – – recently appointed as the department’s new Community Liaison officer to oversee the agency’s community and media relations functions — told City News Service that his department now had instituted the policy because of concerns about violating the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, a medical privacy law enacted in 1996.
Ruda said he and his staff met recently with a deputy city attorney who told them that under HIPAA, “we were not allowed to divulge any information that would compromise (a patient’s) privacy.”
Until the policy was re-introduced, the LAFD had been releasing the information — except during a brief period in late March and early April of 2012, when then-LAFD Chief Brian Cummings ordered his department to stop releasing incident locations and injury information to the public.
Cummings cited an oral opinion from City Attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office that the LAFD risked violating HIPAA.