Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Wednesday ordered the Los Angeles Fire Department to stop withholding basic information about fires, medical calls or other emergencies it responds to until it receives a written opinion from the City Attorney's Office.
"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.
"In the absence of a written legal opinion giving your department guidance, I believe it is our duty to provide information to the media and the public," Villaraigosa said.
City Councilman Mitch Englander, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, earlier in the day blasted the new policy, saying it was poorly timed and did not make sense. He called a special committee meeting for 2 p.m. Friday to discuss the issue and other problems facing the LAFD.
"I understand that under HIPAA laws, there is some information that should be withheld in terms of names. That's one issue. But not disclosing specific addresses and locations, I have a real problem with, particularly from a matter of public safety.
"If we have to alert people or the media that there's a major incident going on, people want to avoid the area, we have to do evacuations of the area, because of a bomb threat or something else, I don't know how you withhold that information," Englander added.
The LAFD has been criticized in recent weeks for misleading city officials about its response times. The department has also disclosed recent dispatch problems that led to several 9-1-1 calls going immediately unanswered.
Public Safety Committee Vice Chair Jan Perry called the new policy "shocking," adding that "it's critically important on major incidents to share location information."
If the department is trying to cover up dispatch problems, Perry said, "we can not allow that to stand."
The department policy began over the weekend, when the LAFD stopped providing locations for emergency calls such as fires and traffic collisions.
On Tuesday, the department sent out a media alert about crews dousing a house fire, but failed to provide a location of the blaze. A department spokesman later declined to provide a location on a collision between a food truck and a car in downtown Los Angeles, citing the new policy.
The department appeared to ease up on the policy slightly today, providing a street name and block number where an electrical fire occurred, and confirming an evacuation that took place at West Adams Preparatory High School west of downtown due to a nearby electrical problem.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, Cummings said the department 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."
"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," Cummings said. "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."
However, Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter said the City Attorney's Office has not changed its legal opinion in recent years on how to abide by medical privacy laws when releasing information about medical emergencies to the public.
"The City Attorney's Office does not have a practice or pattern of ordering media blackouts," Carter said. "We don't give orders to the police chief, and we don't give orders to the fire chief.
"The city attorney provides legal advice and recommendations to our client just as with every other department. We don't make policy," Carter added.
Englander said the timing of the new policy could not be worse.
"We're looking for more accountability, more truth in disclosure. We're looking for more answers and for the department to be more transparent," Englander said. "Now's not the time to come out with something that they want to keep from the public, no matter what that is."
— City News Service