LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Fire Department abruptly began withholding all but the most basic information about emergencies Thursday citing a sweeping privacy order from the city attorney’s office, but the department reversed course hours later.
Journalists were refused typically released public information on deaths and injuries from a suspected arson fire at an Echo Park apartment building. Police said two people died and three were injured.
Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said that during a Wednesday meeting with a deputy city attorney and the Fire Department’s privacy officer, he was told that he couldn’t release certain information because it might violate the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.
The privacy law bars hospital workers and others from releasing certain information on patients without their approval or that of their families.
“We could not speak to anything that would even remotely identify a person” who had been injured, including detailing whether a vehicle in a crash was, for instance, a school bus or municipal bus, Humphrey said.
“I was told in an earthquake, I could not provide information unless it was a federally declared emergency,” he said.
When the pre-dawn fire erupted, Humphrey said he had no choice but to halt the department’s Twitter feed, which automatically relays to other social networks.
At 11:35 a.m., the city attorney’s office told the department to return to its previous practices on releasing information, Humphrey said.
“We learned about this from the media. Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” said a statement from the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti. “We immediately told the department to fix this, and it’s being fixed.”
A city official familiar with details of the Wednesday meeting said the discussion was misunderstood and the Fire Department overreacted.
The meeting generally reviewed the privacy law and social media guidelines to ensure the department didn’t overstep boundaries, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussion was confidential.
The city attorney’s office said in a statement that “The Fire Department’s decision to reinstate its Twitter account and release details on this morning’s fire is the right thing to do.”
The HIPAA interpretation also led the Fire Department on Wednesday to refuse Los Angeles Times requests for 911 recordings made during the deadly Nov. 1 Los Angeles International Airport shootings, and the department also refused to release information about department response times to emergencies, said Capt. Steve Ruda, commanding officer of the department’s Community Liaison Office.
“I’ll have to review now, based on this new direction, whether that information can be released,” Ruda said, adding he would check with the city attorney’s office.
The LAFD, which is one of the largest municipal fire departments in the U.S. with more than 3,500 employees, has come under criticism for discrepancies in reporting response times. The department last year also disclosed dispatch problems that led to a delay in answering several 911 calls.
Associated Press writer Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles contributed to this report.