Dallas Fire/Rescue - It's none of your g'damn business where our ambulances are going

A few weeks ago, BD posted about how the Dallas' Fire/Rescue department was changing the way they posted information about active calls on their website. For example, what had been listed as a Motor Vehicle Accident on your corner was being listed as an EMS [Emergency Medical Service] Incident.

The department's PIO claimed it was due to concerns about patient privacy under HIPAA. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Their reasoning - Since they are a custodian of patient information, they were required to hide anything related to the incident. BD's retort - It's not a patient privacy issue to tell people you are rushing to an accident.

After two weeks of trading emails, each pointing out the other's failure to understand, and unanswered letters to recently appointed DFR Chief Louis Bright III, the City sent BD an f-you email today.

The Chief of the department asked me to respond to your concerns related to the Active Incidents (AI) page display.

After consulting with the City Attorney's office and following their direction; the decision has been made to display fire information only on the AI page. EMS incidents will be no longer be displayed on the AI page after the next updates occur.

In other words, you may hear a siren go by, but you are not allowed to know where they are going. And if you like to track things like how many accidents are taking place at an intersection, don't expect a prompt reply. Don't count on getting much information about active fires down the street either - they will be flagged as Fire Incident., so you won't know if it's a kitchen fire, a car fire, a three-alarm fire, or even a Get Your Ass Out of the House The Neighborhood is Burning Fire.

This is what you see on the official DFR website today. After the next software update, you probably won't see anything, since putting our fires only accounts for about 15% of DFR's activity.


This policy is even more restrictive than other departments referenced in earlier emails by the PIO, such as San Antonio. That department has one page for Active Incidents and another for EMS calls.

Here's an example of how useful this information can be, from the DFWScanner feed

BD is the first to admit he has chased a few ambulances and firetrucks over his many years (his first published photo in a community newspaper in Philly was a fire along the main business avenue in 1970 something). But now that he's grown up, he's not chasing fires for just photos. Knowing how many accidents are happening in an area, and then getting some photos to make your case for better traffic lights or signs, is how people get involved in their community.

Remember the night when a car went through the wall of a house at Belmont and Matilda?? That was the last straw in a number of accidents in the intersection before neighbors organized to install a red signal light on the corner a few weeks later. BD's all for privacy of victims, but hiding the reason for an ambulance run is just childish, and based on a severely flawed interpretation of HIPPA. (Let's not forget that the public is still allowed to take photos of accidents and do not need anyone's approval or blessing to do so).

Other states with a more open attitude than Dallas towards open records, like Wisconsin, took a sensible route on this issue...

HIPAA Law Doesn't Mean Fire Departments Can Operate In Secret

United States (Wisconsin) - Fire departments in Wisconsin cannot use the federal HIPAA law as a reason to withhold basic public information about ambulance calls, such as names and addresses of those who required medical help, the attorney general said in an opinion issued Thursday. The opinion by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen will have an effect around the state, where some fire departments routinely refuse to release information about those treated by emergency personnel.

Such was the case earlier this year in Waukesha, where the Fire Department cited HIPAA privacy provisions in refusing a Journal Sentinel request to release information resulting from its call to treat a suspected drunken mail carrier who crashed his government vehicle into a sign.

Here's hoping somebody blows the smoke off their brain cells and reverses this decision - and soon.

By Avi S. Adelman under Public safety , Dallas City Hall