The city of Columbia won't release records that could show how a local emergency crew responded to a stricken, 3-year-old boy who later died.
City officials said they are barred by state law from making public the recordings of the emergency response, as well as an incident report, detailing the emergency response to 3-year-old Jadan Myers-Pugh. The State newspaper had asked for the information under South Carolina's open records law.
The youngster, who was having trouble breathing, died Sept. 17 after rescue workers delayed rushing the boy to the hospital. Instead of allowing a Columbia firefighter to drive the ambulance, Richland County Emergency Medical Services workers waited for another EMS employee to arrive and take the wheel so the two technicians in the first ambulance could be in the back with the boy.
Richland County Coroner Gary Watts has since said the delay did not contribute to the boy's death, but the EMS response has prompted an outcry from firefighters and some local politicians, who say EMS rules against allowing firefighters to drive ambulances could threaten other lives.
Columbia spokesman Brick Lewis said the city denied the newspaper's information request because of a recent S.C. attorney general's opinion. The city read the opinion to mean state law did not allow the release of any recordings, including 911 audio, or the incident report, Lewis said. Columbia operates the 911 center for both the city and Richland County.
"It's not that we don't want to - we can't," Lewis said.
In an Aug. 19 legal opinion, Attorney General Henry McMaster's office said state law protects "all data, including response times" and other information compiled from the day-to-day operation of an EMS department. The opinion came in response to a request by Beaufort County officials.
But Mark Plowden, a spokesman for McMaster, said the legal opinion doesn't mean the city of Columbia can't release the incident report or some other information.
"Absolutely not," he said.
Plowden said the city's blanket denial of the information appears to have overstepped what is required by the state law, adopted in 2004 by the Legislature. The state law is based on a federal law, known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a federal patient privacy law.
Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., said the federal patient privacy rules have made it difficult for the media in many states to get information about emergencies - but that South Carolina's 2004 law appears extreme.
"It seems that some of this statute goes beyond what" federal law requires, she said, noting the national law "does not prevent a local government from releasing 911 tapes; it does not prevent them from releasing an accident report."
Sen. Harvey Peeler, who sponsored the 2004 bill, said he'll push to change the South Carolina law when the Legislature returns in January. Peeler said he backed the bill at the urging of the Department of Health and Environmental Control as a way to comply with the federal privacy law.
"As brought to me by DHEC, it was told to me this was needed," said Peeler, R-Cherokee. "It was not to try to hide information. We'll fix that."
DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said his agency also is looking into the law to see if changes are needed. Questions in Beaufort and Richland County cases have prompted agency officials to schedule a meeting next week to discuss the law, Myrick said.