In a rapid reversal, the Los Angeles Fire Department announced Thursday it would resume publishing details about the department’s response to life-and-death emergencies via social media and again release 911 audio recordings and database records that capture its performance. The action came just hours after the LAFD said it would be rolling back public disclosure.
Earlier in the day, fire officials had announced that the department would put its social media accounts on “hiatus” and halt releasing records that show how long it takes rescuers to respond to calls for help.
Fire officials did so citing a new interpretation of a 1996 federal healthcare privacy law by assistants to City Atty. Mike Feuer, who said the department should shield the release of all information related to medical rescues, including the response times.
That move drew quick criticism from Mayor Eric Garcetti, and the decision was reversed.
“There was maybe a meeting of the minds in the city attorney’s office,” said Battalion Chief Stephen Ruda, the department’s spokesman. “The bottom line is that we are able to give out everything again. The Twitter and blogs are back online.”
Garcetti, an avid Twitter user who came into office this year promising greater openness in city government, said both he and interim Fire Chief James Featherstone learned about the LAFD’s roll back from the media.
"Frankly, it's ridiculous,” a Garcetti spokesman said in a written statement. “We immediately told the department to fix this, and it's being fixed. The Twitter account is going back online, and they're going to be giving out the information they're supposed to be giving out.”
A spokesman for Feuer said he was unaware of the LAFD's "blackout" until the media brought it to his attention and said that releasing the most information as legally possible is "the right thing to do."
Asst. Chief Ronnie Villanueva, the LAFD chief of staff, said the agency's Twitter account, which boasts more than 34,000 followers, should be back in service Thursday afternoon or evening at the latest.
Villanueva said that he was not consulted on the initial shutdown and there may have been some sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding among LAFD staffers and the city attorney's office. "I don't know how it got to this point," he said, adding that he was looking into the matter.
Villanueva said the federal healthcare privacy law prevents the department from providing personal medical details. "But it doesn't mean we don't give anything out" regarding medical emergencies, he said.
Peter Scheer, head of the First Amendment Coalition and advocate for greater public access to government records, agreed.
“There’s no reason they can’t provide the records in the vast majority of cases and redact the names of people who might be receiving medical care or identifying information about them,” Scheer said. “To deny this access across the board, even to redact records based on the federal law, is not a reasonable interpretation of that law.”
Many of LAFD's fire and law enforcement peers, including the Los Angeles County Fire Department, routinely release 911 recordings and response time records.