Public has right, need to know how EMS does its job

IF FIREFIGHTERS show up at your house too late to keep it from burning down, you can get official records that show precisely when your neighbor called 911, when the fire trucks left the station and how long it took them to get to your house.

If the police officer doesn't arrive until after the robber has made his get-away, you can find out the same information. You can even get the officer's name.

If emergency medical technicians arrive too late, or if your child dies while the ambulance sits in your driveway waiting for a backup driver to show up, you are in the dark. State law says it's none of your business how long it was between the time you called 911 and the ambulance headed for your house, which means it's none of your business whether 911 operators dropped the ball or EMS dropped the ball or no one dropped the ball. It's none of your business how long the ambulance was tied up by bureaucratic rules. It's none of your business who the emergency technicians were, which means it's none of your business whether they were rookies or veterans, or whether they had a history of arriving late.

In fact, you can't even get the raw data that would show average EMS response times, which local governments often use to determine how much public money to spend on staff and equipment.

If you think that's an outrage, you're right.

If you think it's just another example of the Legislature going out of its way to keep us in the dark about how our government works ... well, not so fast.

Senate Medical Affairs Chairman Harvey Peeler insists that he had no idea he was creating a blackout on public information about such clearly public matters when he authored a law in 2004 that the attorney general's office says makes it illegal to release incident reports, 911 recordings and "all" other information about emergency service calls. Sen. Peeler had intended only to protect the privacy of patients, in order to comply with the federal HIPPA law, and he is trying to correct his error.

If you think correcting a clearly inadvertent error is a slam-dunk, you're wrong.

DHEC officials, who brought Sen. Peeler the language for the 2004 law and gave him no clue it went so far, see no problem with the veil of secrecy. And the S.C. Emergency Medical Services Association is actively fighting to preserve at least part of its special exemption. When the group's director spouted nonsense last week about the media wanting to dig up dirt on rescue workers, and then went on a tirade about his own (completely irrelevant) experiences with the media when he was a House member, Sen. Peeler's panel sent the bill back to a subcommittee, which is scheduled to take it up this morning.

Hiding rescue workers' names is not the worst thing about this law. It is far, far worse that the law makes it impossible to judge how well our public servants perform their jobs either in individual cases or overall. There is no justification for retaining that exemption, and if the Legislature doesn't lift it, then this will indeed be a case of our legislators deliberately hiding critical information about how our government works.

But here's the thing: There is no legitimate reason to hide the names of rescue workers - or any other public officials who might or might not be doing their jobs well. In fact, that information was available to the public until this past summer, when the attorney general was asked to review the law, and we're not aware of any problems it created. And in a free society, you're supposed to have a very good reason to hide information from the public.