Bill to open EMS records is sidetracked

A dispute in the Legislature jeopardizes chances the public will ever know the full story of a stricken 3-year-old and a rescue crew's unsuccessful efforts to save him.

A bill calling for greater scrutiny of rescue operations bogged down last week after a former lawmaker complained that opening emergency response records would subject many rescue crews to undue criticism.

Without a change in the law, the city of Columbia says it can't release a 911 recording and an incident report about events surrounding the death of Jadan Myers-Pugh. The 3-year-old died last Sept. 17. Rescue workers had delayed taking the boy to the hospital.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts has said the delay didn't contribute to the boy's death, but criticism continues over the county's response.

Short-handed rescue workers would not allow a Columbia firefighter who was at the scene drive the boy in an ambulance, witnesses said. Instead, Richland County Emergency Services crews waited for another rescue team to arrive - in keeping with the county's policy that only EMS workers can drive ambulances.

The city denied a public records request by The State in October that could explain more about the conduct of Emergency Services crews responding to the 3-year-old.

A 2004 law is now being interpreted to mean incident reports, 911 recordings and other information about emergency service calls can't be released to the public.

An Aug. 19, 2009, attorney general's opinion is being cited as the reason.

"Right now, what we're going by is what we learned from the attorney general's opinion regarding EMS-type calls," said Mike King, an assistant Columbia city manager. "It wouldn't just be the Sept. 17 call, but any type of EMS-related call."

Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, introduced a bill in December to open the records, which he said were closed several years ago by mistake.

"I want to get this cleared up," he said.

But Peeler, who chairs the Senate Medical Affairs Committee, got an earful last week at a committee meeting.

Former state Rep. Steve Lanford said the bill would make public the names of emergency services workers. That could expose rescue crews who haven't done anything wrong to unnecessary scrutiny from the media and public, he said.

The media are "looking for negative things to print and will do whatever they can to sell papers," said Lanford, who is executive director of the S.C. Emergency Medical Services Association.

Lanford said he knows how it feels to be the victim of community suspicions.

He said his hairstylist was murdered some years ago, and people in his community started asking whether he was involved. Lanford said he was not, but he was wrongly disparaged by a political opponent trying to smear his name.

"My eldest daughter was at Presbyterian College. She called me crying like a baby," Lanford said. "My wife had to go get my daughter who was in junior high school for all the kids in school saying, 'Steve Lanford had something to do with this girl's death."'

South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender and Bill Rogers, the group's executive director, said Lanford's situation isn't relevant to whether EMS workers should be held up for scrutiny. Emergency services workers are no different from police officers or firefighters, they said.

"These are public servants performing a public duty, and the public has a right to know who they are," Rogers said.

Rogers also denied Lanford's suggestion that the association reneged on an agreement to keep the names of EMS workers secret. He said the press association would never agree to such a deal.

"He's nuts," Rogers said.

Rogers, whose group includes the state's major newspapers, said Lanford's comments jeopardize chances the bill will pass this year.

After hearing from Lanford last week, the Senate Medical Affairs committee postponed a vote on the bill.

Columbia's decision to deny access to emergency services information isn't a first in South Carolina.

Questions also surround the response of emergency workers in the Hilton Head Island area. As in Columbia, Beaufort County officials won't release some records of emergency response times sought by Lowcountry newspapers. County EMS workers have been criticized for not taking a man with head injuries to a hospital better equipped to treat head trauma.

Peeler, however, said he'll continue to push for the law this year.

He said he wants to make sure the records are open because he introduced the 2004 bill that has prompted the dispute.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control recommended the legislation to him, Peeler said. But he said he thought the bill was only to protect patient information - not information about EMS responses to emergencies.

The bill was supposed to mirror a federal patient privacy law, he said.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC