L.A. Fire Department's Public-Information Blackout: Is Withholding Response Times, Addresses Even Legal?
Update: "LA.'s top free-speech attorney says LAFD Chief Brian Cummings' media blackout is illegal and self-serving. And the department scrambles to make sense of its own rules.
Flickr Chief Cummings with the mayor.
It was terrifying enough when L.A. Fire Department Chief Brian L. Cummings recently admitted to lying about his department's emergency response times to L.A. City Hall, leading to more dangerous cuts for LAFD.
But the worst possible thing he could do, now that taxpayers have learned that their firefighters are only meeting the national response-time standard 60 percent of the time, is cram the concerning data in a file cabinet and swallow the key.
Yet that's exactly what Cummings claimed the L.A. City Attorney advised him to do last weekend:
Cummings sent the following letter to Los Angeles Times reporters on Monday, turning down their request for "basic details on emergency medical responses affected by a brief March 7 breakdown of the department's dispatch system."
The letter was later posted to the LAFD blog, as well.
"The City Council has designated the City of Los Angeles as 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, 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 Departments procedures will be forwarded to your offices."
So it appears City Attorney Carmen Trutanich -- otherwise known as Carmen the Barbarian, enemy of protesters, pot smokers and street artists -- is using the leaked Demi Moore 911 call as a flimsy excuse to smother the city's mistakes. Or, perhaps, Cummings is doing the same. At least until officials can come up with some way to make the numbers look good again.
LAFD spokesman Richard Matheney tells the Weekly this morning that response times and addresses are indeed being withheld for "just medical or injury-related incidents."
But that could mean any emergency where anyone got hurt. Very rarely does a fire or car crash not include at least one small injury. Even the fire-hydrant shearing yesterday involved a driver with minor injuries.
"Right now we're just waiting for [instructions] to come through the City Attorney so we can give you the correct information," says Matheney.
We've contacted various First Amendment lawyers on the legality of this blatant public-information block -- and various fire departments in other cities on their policies.
Meanwhile, City Controller candidate Cary Brazeman, who was first to discover that the LAFD's response times had been steadily declining amid budget cuts, is demanding answers:
"The Los Angeles Fire Department has stopped releasing emergency incident data to the public, media and other stakeholders, citing an unrelated federal law that the city is suggesting precludes it from making the data public. The questions are many: What is the city covering up? For how many years did the city report false or misleading response-time data? Who knew the truth and when did they know it? Why didn't the Fire Chief step out and shine the light on this? Where was the City Controller? The City Council's Audits and Efficiency Committee?"
The official Twitter feed of the LAFD has started replacing all addresses with the word "MAP." Seriously. It would almost be funny, if it weren't so absurdly out of line.
*Structure Fire* ; MAP ; FS 78; Large 3 story apt complex w/ smoke showing frm roof; Ch:9,17 @-Matt Spence###— LAFD (@LAFD) March 18, 2012
Amid the whole Firegate embarrassment, current City Controller Wendy Greuel has released an audit finding that while slashing essential emergency services, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council have continued to grossly overspend on brand-name commodities like office and janitorial supplies.