Et tu, Dallas Ignis liberandum? Quid secretum?(You too, Dallas Fire Rescue? What's the secret?)

Update Friday afternoon - The DMN has more information about this issue - link

Update Friday morning - After the DFR changed its website to mask incident information, it also shut down (or broke the links to) its two Twitter feeds - Accidents and Incidents. The last posts on both feeds are more than 20 hours old.

Like a church hiding the nasty stuff, Dallas City Hall has a bad reputation for access to public records. If they are not stalling you on open record requests, they are trying to get the Attorney General to help them hide the stuff, or at least delay its release long enough so you forget what the heck you were looking for. Just recently, the Dallas Morning News asked the AG to intervene in order to force the Dallas Police Department to cease and desist the deletion of internal emails. That includes emails sent to the DMN telling them emails about the emails were deleted.

And let's not forget the cover-up of records regarding a little marital spat at Dwaine Caraway's house a few years ago. That ended up in court, embarrassing everyone involved with too much information.

Usually the Dallas Fire / Rescue folks are above this kind of behavior. You want a list of fire inspection records on bars? Got it! Want to take photos at a fire in the neighborhood? Hey not a problem (and can we have copies for our personal albums??) Just stay away from the cops, they don't want anyone getting those photos, no matter your credentials or relationship with DFR.

But now, DFR is revising its website, citing privacy issues that simply don't exist. Specifically, they are using HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) privacy requirements to close up what had been a public list of emergency responses by ambulances. Is this part of a city-wide trend to restrict access to information that truly belongs in the public domain???

But now the Dallas Fire/Rescue Department is getting all jiggity about public information. Even though their Active Incidents website was kinda thin on details, like not showing a time/date stamp, at least you knew where they were working and what kind of incident it was. If you are like me, chasing fire engines for good photo ops, or simply want to know why there's a fire engine in your neighborhood, you could look it up. It would show you the type of incident (eg Motor Vehicle Accident, Structure Fire, Hazardous Chemical, etc), the address and what units were on the scene.

Back in 2010, when the Terilli's fire occurred, BD heard all the sirens going past the Dog Pound (which sits on a major intersection just south of the location). Within seconds, he was able to go online and see that it was a four-alarm fire and was able to get out and get photos within minutes of it being called in.

That all changed this morning. Now you have no information about the type of incident. It simply says INCIDENT in the first column. For example, there was a three-alarm fire in North Dallas with dozens of pieces of equipment and probably a hundred plus firefighters. It's an INCIDENT, when it used to be STRUCTURE FIRE 1, 2, 3, etc. DFR says this is temporary (see statement below) until upgrades are complete, but why post a half-complete website instead of waiting till all the coding is finished, let alone dropping important information.

HIPPA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information, not the fact that an ambulance went to an accident scene or there was a fire in your kitchen. We can see the address anyways (at least for now). The HIPPA issue was settled about six years ago (we thought) when a DFR chief would not let BD take photos of a teen-ager being treated for injuries after the car he was driving went through the wall of a house at Belmont and Matilda. He was cited and DFR conceded that cameras were everywhere and the victim had no rights to privacy on the public street.

In an email sent to BD just as this article was being posted, DFR's Public Information Officer stated

Thank you for your concerns related to the active incidents page. We are in the process of changing the way we code our Emergency Medical Service (EMS) calls on the active incidents page, due to HIPPA concerns.

In the last few weeks we have been gathering information from our index cities and meeting with EMS professionals to determine the best way to code our EMS calls on the active incidents page.

In the future, when individuals view EMS calls on the active incidents page; the page will list the hundred block (not the physical address), street name and identify the incident as EMS in nature. Fire incidents on the active incidents page will be listed the traditional way with the (physical) street address and incident type.

Thank you for understanding our HIPPA challenges,

Joel Lavender, Lieutenant

BD's not an attorney, but when he plays one on the internet, he copies what other lawyers write. In this case, let's move up north to look at what the Wisconsin Attorney General said way back in 2007:

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.

On a website for Fire Department Public Information Officers around the country, others have weighed in, saying that HIPPA just does not apply here. Happy Medic summed it up by saying -

Is a wrap up for covered entities, which is to say, those who encounter a person who's information is protected. If a person is not a covered entity, meaning not involved in care, there is no protection under HIPAA.

An example is the news media capturing patient care. That is not protected under HIPAA, neither is a private person photographing patient care.

Only those covered entities taking part in patient care/billing are under the HIPAA laws and can not share the information.

The Dallas Police Department's Active Incidents page is still cool with this stuff. Date, time, address, vehicle number, issue, etc. The DFR page at best was just a chalkboard of recent calls (no date or time of dispatch, and no plans per PIO's to do it soon either). The DPD posts so much information BD needed two rows just to show it here.

 

Here's hoping the DFR folks do a little more research on the legal issues, and stop taking the opinions of other PIOs around the country who made up their own rules without proper legal advice. There are nearly 100 city attorneys on staff at City Hall. Surely one of them can do some research on HIPPA issues.

The DPD incidents page is extremely detailed, but they follow state law by not releasing information regarding sexual abuse, rape or children. That kind of detailed information can only help the public in knowing how resources are allocated, where the most activity is, and where the response times are too long. DFR should consider going way past the line of duty, while taking every precaution covered by law, and not their own idea of what the law says to post or not post.

Look back at the photo incident referenced above. Does this new interpretation mean the DFR will now force photographers (no matter credentials or not) to either not take photos of victims on the street, block their view, or seize their cameras in the name of patient privacy. Yeah, like that's gonna stop BD, citizen journalists or professional photographers. Touch my camera, you're gonna find out what zoom lenses can really do to your butt.

Update Friday morning re photographers covering accidents and HIPPA. This comment from Mickey Osterreicher, attorney for the National Press Photographers Association (of which BD is a member)

My opinion is that HIPPA applies to healthcare providers and in this case first responders. They have a duty of care to their patients. A photographer does not. So if an EMS tech takes a picture of a victim at the scene of a fire or accident they may be liable under HIPPA if they post it (there has already been a big to-do over this in the EMS community).

As a journalist you are not bound by that duty of care and the police/fire/EMS crews may not claim a HIPPA privilege or extend that prohibition in order to prevent you from photographing/recording things and people in public view. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public. That is how "private" (as when you are in your home) is differentiated from"public" where we are all constantly under surveillance.

Blaming everything on HIPPA is an easy scapegoat method that needs to be stopped. Or simply stated, better to post too much (legally released) information than not enough.

By Avi S. Adelman under Public safety , Legal issues