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LAFD stops providing medical response updates

Los Angeles Fire Department Twitter feed

This post has been updated. See the notes below for details.

 Amid questions about its response times, the Los Angeles Fire Department has stopped releasing public updates on emergency incidents.

The change in practice apparently was first signaled Friday in a letter to Times reporters who had requested basic details on emergency medical responses affected by a brief March 7 breakdown of the department's dispatch system.

LAFD Letter The letter, dated Monday, said the Fire Department had been designated a "hybrid entity" under the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA. Written by Fire Chief Brian Cummings, it said the department was seeking a legal opinion from the city attorney about what specific incident-related health information could be released. It also said penalties for release of private medical information had been increased by federal legislation in 2009.

[For the record, 10:51 a.m., March 21: An earlier version of this post incorrectly gave the acronym of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as HIPPA.]

DOCUMENT: LAFD Letter

In the p ast, the department routinely released basic information on emergency medical responses, including the location, nature of the injuries and ages and gender of the victims. Until the last few days, many medical responses were highlighted in department email alerts and on the agency's popular Twitter feed, which has more than 18,000 followers.

[Updated at 8:22 a.m., March 21: LAFD Capt. Jaime Moore said it was unclear what prompted the change in policy. "The city attorney brought their concern over the information that was being released to our attention," Moore said. "They didn't tell me why, they just brought it to my attention. I didn't ask them what brought this to your attention."

He could not recall when this happened. "It's been an ongoing discussion," he said.]

The shift in disclosure practice, Cummings acknowledged, "will significantly impact the manner in which the department provides updates and notifications." It was not immediately clear why the practice was being changed now or how extensively it might affect public and media requests for detailed data and information from the agency.

 In recent weeks, the department has been buffeted by questions about discrepancies in its response-time reporting, as well as concerns about technical problems in its emergency dispatching system.

Cummings wrote his agency was acting on advice from the city attorney's office, which "preliminarily opined that the department should immediately cease the practice of releasing" data not permitted under the law's privacy protections related to patient treatment and billing. The letter said the department was awaiting further guidance from the city attorney's office.

At Tuesday's Fire Commission meeting, Cummings read his letter but provided little additional detail before he briefed the panel on recent dispatching system problems, which have resulted in longer response times on some cases.

The legal advice the city attorney gives departments is often considered confidential.

Contacted late Tuesday, William H. Carter, chief deputy to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said that decisions to release information regarding response times, 911 calls or basic information about incidents "rests solely with the Fire Department."

"As with any of our clients, we provide legal advice and recommendations and our clients can accept it or not," Carter told The Times. "We don't control the Fire Department. We don't control any city department. We don't have that kind of power. We provide legal advice not policy advice."

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-- Andrew Blankstein (twitter.com/anblanx) and Robert J. Lopez (twitter.com/LAJourno)

Images: Los Angeles Fire Department Twitter feed and letter from Fire Chief Brian Cummings

 
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