LAFD Starts Media Blackout on Fires, Rescues After Bad Press on Response Times | The Informer | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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LAFD Starts Media Blackout on Fires, Rescues After Bad Press on Response Times

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Wed, Mar 21, 2012 at 12:45 AM

click to enlarge Is a media firestorm brewing? - LAFD
  • LAFD
  • Is a media firestorm brewing?
What happened? We don't know. Where did it happen? Not sure.

That's the word from the Los Angeles Fire Department which, since Sunday, has apparently been refusing to give members of the media basic information about fires, rescue operations and paramedic responses.

That's something it used to do -- give us a time, place and the basics about what happened.

While the LAFD says it is simply following federal patient privacy law, the timing coincides with ...

... some bad press over the department's response times.

The Los Angeles Times has been reporting that the LAFD's times appear to have increased as its budget has been slashed.

It's a contentious issue that has been highlighted by the firefighters' union. It has been so inflammatory that L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got testy in the presence of the union's leader, Pat McOsker, last week.

McOsker had argued that the budget cuts would lead to people losing their lives. At a press conference about the response times, the mayor said, " ... He knows it's not true."

The department had been reporting that it responded to serious emergencies within 5 minutes 80 percent of the time, a national minimum benchmark.

But its data appeared to be flawed, and 5-minute responses now come only 60 percent of the time, according to the Times.

So is the info abstinence payback for the bad ink? Starting Sunday, it appears the department began cutting off its automated email alerts to reporters.

Normally the emails would give us the time and place of an incident, the number of injured, the number of firefighters or rescuers assigned to the call, and the time it took to put a fire out.

No longer, it seems. And it appears that public information officers at the department aren't giving out the goods on incidents either.

LAFD Chief Brian L. Cummings issued a statement to City News Service, which broke this story, saying that the office of L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich recommended the blackout as a result of the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which requires patient confidentiality.

He said the LAFD ...

... 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.

That might or might not be true, but it doesn't begin to explain why the department can't tell us about a fire involving no injuries or hospitalization or, say, a cliff rescue where the victim ends up being okay.

And while HIPAA can protect one's name, prognosis and medical records, it doesn't seem to prevent the LAFD from saying, for example, that, 'Hey, we responded to a car crash and three people were taken to hospitals."

Nothing seems to clash with HIPAA there.

Remember, despite its highly specialized functions, the LAFD belongs to you, the people, and on some level you deserve to know what it's up to. You're paying for it. A lot. Fire and police services make up the majority of the city's budget.

The department employs full time spokesmen, too, so at some point their going to have to be transferred or this charade will have to end.

Where's the L.A. City Council on this? It has been busy considering a toothless "resolution" about radio content. Really.

[With reporting from City News Service / @dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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