Represent!

Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LAFD implements, then quickly reverses, new media policy

The Los Angeles Fire Department announced Thursday it would withhold all information on injuries and deaths at the scenes of emergencies. That policy was then immediately reversed.
The Los Angeles Fire Department announced Thursday it would withhold all information on injuries and deaths at the scenes of emergencies. That policy was then immediately reversed. Photo by KristaLAPrincess via Flickr Creative Commons

A policy that would have prevented L.A. fire officials from releasing information on injuries and fatalities at emergencies they respond to was short-lived Thursday, getting the boot from top city leaders just hours after it was implemented. 

Citing a federal privacy law, the Los Angeles Fire Department announced it would no longer provide "the name, the date, addresses related to the patient or any information that we know can be used alone or in combination with other information to identify (victims)," said Battalion Chief Stephen Ruda, who is a public information officer for the LAFD. 

Plainly-speaking, the fire department would no longer alert reporters about any injuries or deaths related to a fire, car crash or any other 911 call, Ruda said — even though 85 percent of LAFD's responses involve a medical emergency or injury. 

“That is the interpretation that we have to abide by (at) the city attorney’s direction," Ruda said. 

To announce the new policy, LAFD's two Twitter accounts and blog posted "this account is on temporary hiatus" around 2 a.m. Thursday. Most media outlets discovered the new policy while trying to report on an early morning fire in Echo Park. But according to the Mayor's office and City Attorney's office, top city leaders didn't know about the information blackout until they started getting calls from journalists. 

"Frankly, it's ridiculous," said Yusef Robb, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti.  "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." 
 
"Note that Chief (Jim) Featherstone learned about this from the media as well," Robb said. 

And even though LAFD said the new media policy came, in part, from a supervising attorney in the City Attorney's office, that office didn't have any details this morning. 

The fire department originally said its new policy was related to privacy concerns regarding the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Ruda later explained the department had received a new interpretation of the federal law.

“We’re able to give the media exactly what you need as long as we don’t infiltrate the privacy of our patients,” Ruda said. “We’ve put everything back in its order … we regret any inconvenience that may have caused — or anxiety.”

Around 1:30 p.m., the LAFD's Twitter accounts had been reactivated — less than 12 hours after the "hiatus." 

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