Mayor Villaraigosa Orders LAFD to End Media Blackout

"I am directing you to immediately resume releasing information," the mayor said in a letter to the chief

By Jonathan Gonzalez, Jason Kandel and Gordon Tokumatsu
|  Thursday, Mar 22, 2012  |  Updated 5:44 AM PDT
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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered the Los Angeles Fire Department to end its media blackout, one day after fire officials said they would stop releasing public information about emergency calls, traffic accidents and fires they respond to. Gordon Tokumatsu reports.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered the Los Angeles Fire Department to end its media blackout, one day after fire officials said they would stop releasing public information about emergency calls, traffic accidents and fires they respond to. Gordon Tokumatsu reports.

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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Wednesday ordered the Los Angeles Fire Department to stop withholding basic information about emergencies one day after the department announced it would impose a media blackout.

Citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal medical privacy law, the department announced Tuesday that it would no longer provide the public with basic information about fires, traffic accidents or other emergencies it responds to.

Document: Mayor's Full Letter to LAFD Chief Brian Cummings (PDF)

"In the absence of a written legal opinion giving your department guidance, I believe it is our duty to provide information to the media and the public," Villaraigosa wrote in a letter to LAFD Fire Chief Brian Cummings. "I am directing you to immediately resume releasing information."

The department has not responded to the letter.

A finger-pointing game was sparked between the mayor’s office and the City Attorney Wednesday over who was responsible for the media blackout of emergency information.

On one end, the LA City Council had designated the LAFD as a "hybrid" health provider under HIPAA, according to the department's Tuesday announcement.

That means the LAFD is not required to release Protected Health Information, unless it is for the purposes of treatment, billing or operations, citing increased civil and criminal penalties if it does, Cummings said.

On the other end, the LAFD was also told by the city attorney's office to stop releasing PHI to any source not authorized under the act.

"The City Attorney has preliminarily opined that the department should immediately cease the practice of releasing PHI," Cummings said. "I realize that this practice will significantly impact the manner in which the Department provides updates … to a wide variety of stakeholders."

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said his office only advised the fire chief and the mayor but would never order them to not disclose public information.

“We did not advise a blanket prohibition on the release of public information,” said a city attorney spokesman. “The policy of our office is not to order media blackouts."

But Villaraigosa believes it's Trutanich's responsibility to figure out the legality of the blackout.

"I'm going to ask the city attorney to revisit that issue," Villaraigosa said.

NBC4 Legal Analyst Royal Oakes said he doesn't believe the department should be considered a hybrid health care provider, since it is not a "quasi-arm of a hospital."

"It's one thing to protect the names of patients … but this is a real overreaction to that HIPAA law," Oakes said.

The media blackout was imposed weeks after the LAFD had been scrutinized for slow response times.

Villaraigosa was asked whether he believed the media coverage over the response times and budget issues was responsible for the short-lived black out.

"No. I don't think so," he said.

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