As LAFD clamps down on releasing info, it faces more heat

(Originally published 3/21/2012 by KPCC)

Los Angeles Fire Department’s new information release policy could be a stumbling block in the department’s social media strategy.

The department cited HIPAA, a federal medical privacy law, and advice from city attorney Carmen Trutanich’s office, when it announced it would stop releasing some information because of its role as a health care provider. City News Service reported the department said it would stop distributing information about fires, medical calls and other emergencies it responds to and had been reporting on various platforms, including vibrant Twitter feeds. @LAFD and @LAFDtalk have set the bar for emergency management professionals and their use of social media.

All the practical effects of the policy are still fuzzy, but KPCC is working to get some clarity from LAFD beyond this tweet from public safety officer Matt Spence:


Mayor Antonio VIllaraigosa wrote LAFD a letter late Wednesday, instructing them to continue releasing location information.

“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. At a time when the Los Angeles Fire Department needs more transparency — not less — I am directly you to immediately resume releasing information that provides LAFD incident specifics without violating federal law,” he wrote.

NBCLA reported the policy apparently took effect Sunday, when the LAFD began omitting the addresses from media alerts it circulates about fires or other incidents to which crews are dispatched.

Updates posted on March 17, before the policy came about, have specific addresses of incidents responded to and in few instances, block numbers.

On Tuesday, the department declined to provide locations to reporters of a vehicle that sheared a fire hydrant or a collision between a food truck and a car in downtown L.A., citing the new policy.

LAFD’s tweets in recent days had block numbers or no address at all. The department provided a street name and block number on Wednesday where an electrical fire occurred, and confirmed an evacuation that took place at West Adams Preparatory High School.

Lt. Tom Leveque, who is behind the Arcadia Police Department’s Twitter feed (@ArcadiaPD), said the Arcadia Police Department has never published specific addresses when tweeting about incidents. Leveque says his department preserves an intentional delay between the call and tweets published on incidents.

“I won’t put out the exact location,” he said. “We’re not putting [incidents] out in real time, but it’s close — that helps protect the safety of the first responders.”

Councilman Mitch Englander criticized the policy and told the City Maven the change was bad timing given LAFD’s recent travails with its reporting practices and response times.

“From what I’ve heard so far, what they’re suggesting isn’t reasonable,” Englander said. “I think it, quite frankly, is a matter of public safety and is a danger.”

Public Safety Committee Vice Chair Jan Perry called the new policy “shocking,” adding “it’s critically important on major incidents to share location information,” reported the L.A. Daily News.

Leveque said he believes the policy is overly conservative.

“In reality, it think this is a good example of an entity’s attorney who is leaning way, way too far toward being conservative about potential liability,” he said.

On his personal Twitter account, Brian Humphrey, one of the public safety officers behind @LAFDtalk, said he was not involved with the decision.


William H. Carter, chief deputy to Trutanich, spoke with the LA Times Tuesday and said decisions on what the fire department releases about incidents “rests solely with the Fire Department.”

“As with any of our clients, we provide legal advice and recommendations and our clients can accept it or not,” Carter told the Times. “We don’t control the Fire Department. We don’t control any city department. We don’t have that kind of power. We provide legal advice not policy advice.”

In a release, Fire Chief Brian Cummings admitted the policy could prove difficult.

“I realize that this practice will significantly impact the manner in which the Department provides updates and notifications to a wide variety of stakeholders,” he said.

Leveque said despite the stumble, as he termed it, he was sure the @LAFD would still maintain a good relationship with media and the public: “I’m sure that they’ll find a happy medium.”

A City Council’s Public Safety Committee hearing will be held on Friday at 2 p.m. at City Hall to discuss LAFD-related issues.