Mayor orders LAFD to release emergency response information
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Wednesday afternoon directed his fire chief to stop withholding information from the public on the department's emergency medical responses.
The mayor's unusually blunt order came after a day of turmoil at City Hall in which council members criticized the department for discontinuing a years-long practice of providing basic rescue response details, such as incident times, locations and the nature of the emergencies, as well as the age and gender of victims.
The sudden change in disclosure came as the department found itself under attack for discrepancies in its reporting of emergency response data and dispatching equipment problems that had caused delays in several incidents.
DOCUMENT: Mayor's letter to fire chief
Fire Chief Brian Cummings announced in recent days that the past incident disclosure practice would be halted, at least temporarily. He cited a 1996 federal law that protects patient privacy by prohibiting public release of identifiable information. The agency requested and is awaiting a new legal opinion on the issues from the city attorney's office, Cummings said.
The mayor, in a letter to Cummings, said, “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.
"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."
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.
Department spokesman Capt. Jaime Moore said Wednesday that he did not know what prompted the change in policy. He said the disclosure issue was raised by the city attorney's office, although he could not recall when.
It was unclear late Wednesday when the department would comply with the mayor’s order. "We are not going to violate federal law,” said Battalion Chief Armando Hogan, adding that the agency “would look into” what type of information it could release.
William Carter, chief deputy to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said his office's advice to the department has been consistent in recent years. But he declined to say what it has been because of attorney-client privilege. The federal law cited by the department, Carter said, was "not a blanket prohibition against the release of all public information."
--Kate Linthicum and Robert J. Lopez
Photo: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Brian Cummings during a press conference on March 13, 2012. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times