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Mayor tells fire chief to disclose data

Amid a squall of criticism, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa late Wednesday ordered his Fire Department chief to stop withholding basic information about responses to medical emergencies.

The mayor’s unusually blunt order came after a day in which council members criticized the department for halting its years-long practice of providing the public with basic rescue response details, including times, locations and the nature of emergencies, as well as the age and gender of victims.

The sudden change in disclosure was announced earlier this week, even as the department struggled to reassure the public and city lawmakers about response time reports that made it appear that rescuers were getting to people in crisis faster than they actually were. A malfunctioning dispatching system that has delayed help for some victims in recent weeks has added to the department’s woes.

The mayor’s directive marks the first time since the controversy began that Villaraigosa has publicly broken ranks with Fire Chief Brian Cummings and his policies.

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“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 wrote in a letter to Cummings.

He acknowledged the chief’s expressed concern about possibly violating patients’ privacy rights, which are protected by federal law. But he said, “In the absence of a written legal opinion giving the department guidance, I believe it is our duty to provide information to the media and the public.”

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee has set a special hearing Friday to probe recent problems at the department and the disclosure policy.

The department has long released basic information about its responses to medical emergencies, even highlighting some incidents on its popular Twitter feed. Last week, the department tweeted to more than 18,000 followers the details of a traffic accident at 11653 W. Moorpark St. in which 11-year-old twin girls were struck by a vehicle. One was critically injured and the other was seriously injured.

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But in an appearance before the Fire Commission this week, Cummings said the department has stopped releasing that type of information. He cited the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, which guards patient privacy by limiting the medical details that healthcare providers can release.

The Fire Department’s new approach was signaled Friday in a letter to Times reporters who had requested basic details on emergency responses affected by a brief March 7 breakdown of the agency’s dispatch system.

In it, Cummings said the agency requested and was awaiting a legal opinion on medical privacy issues from the city attorney’s office. That office preliminarily advised the department to “immediately cease” its practice of releasing emergency medical information, Cummings wrote.

William Carter, chief deputy to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, said his office’s advice to the Fire Department “has been consistent” in recent years.

But he said attorney-client privilege prevented him from discussing that legal advice. The federal law cited by the chief “is not a blanket prohibition against the release of all public information,” he said.

Other fire agencies in the state do disclose basic information about medical calls, said Jim Ewen, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.

It was unclear late Wednesday when and how 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 will look into the type of information it can release.

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Outcry over the department’s new disclosure restrictions spread quickly inside and outside City Hall after Cummings’ announcement. Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, said the timing “couldn’t be worse.”

“While they’re being questioned by the city and by the media about their fuzzy math ... to come up with something like this makes no sense,” he said.

“I understand patient privacy and perhaps not releasing names,” said Englander. “But to withhold the information in terms of location and other details does not make any sense.”

Cary Brazeman, a candidate for city controller, said the department’s focus should be on improving emergency service, “not playing hide and seek with public information.”

An attorney for the Radio and Television News Assn. sent a sharply worded letter to Cummings, saying “the public’s health and safety often depends on knowledge about emergency conditions.”

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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