Baltimore Lawyers Won't Release Emergency Response Time, Dispatch Error Data

This month, the city of Baltimore has denied two Public Information Act requests from a local newspaper on grounds that the agency did not have the documents to provide.

by Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun / May 1, 2017
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(TNS) -- City lawyers refused to release information about the Baltimore Fire Department's response times, dispatch errors and paramedic staffing rates.

Benjamin A. Bor, a special assistant solicitor in the city's Law Department, told The Baltimore Sun this month that the city was denying two Public Information Act requests from the newspaper on grounds that the agency did not have the documents to provide.

The only exception was an audio copy of a July call to 911 in which a dispatcher initially sent paramedics to the wrong address.

Bor said in an email the Fire Department "is unable to produce a full, un-redacted copy of the record of the aforementioned 911 call to you because it consists almost entirely of medical information about an individual that the custodian is required to protect from disclosure."

The Sun originally sought the call and other information from the Fire Department in March, but received little. The newspaper appealed to the Law Department to release that information and more.

Councilman Brandon M. Scott, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, is convening a hearing at 4 p.m. Tuesday to seek similar data from Fire Department officials.

"We're going to investigate as much as we can from top to bottom," Scott said, "everything from where the fires are to how many calls for service come from EMS and how many from fire."

Damon Effingham, legal and policy director for Common Cause Maryland, said he was surprised city lawyers said the Fire Department did not have some of the records The Sun requested, such as a breakdown of the percentage of 911 calls made for fire suppression and medical service. Releasing such information helps essential city services function better, he said.

"It is unfortunate if they're not keeping it, and if they are, the point of the Public Information Act is for the public and legislators to review data and fine-tune polices and solutions," Effingham said. "There are very few places where that is more important than emergency services.

"This data has to be somewhere."

The Sun also requested information for each of the last three years on how many hours of overtime did dispatchers and paramedics claim; how many dispatchers and paramedics work for the Fire Department; how many 911 calls did dispatchers answer; how many calls did medic units respond to in an average shift; what was the policy governing when dispatchers send an advanced or basic medic unit; and how much was the base pay for an EMT and paramedic.

The Fire Department released data to The Sun in 2013 on response times to medical calls for its ambulances and fire trucks or engines with a firefighter trained in basic lifesaving services on board.

Rick Hoffman, president of the Baltimore firefighters union, said the department has kept response time data for more than a decade and that it is easily accessible. He said he was "flabbergasted" to hear the department wasn't releasing it.

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