Bill to open EMS response-time records heads to governor's desk

The public might soon be able to review EMS response times, incident reports and other operational data previously off-limits under state law.

A bill making such EMS data available to the public was ratified by both chambers of the state legislature Thursday and has been sent to Gov. Mark Sanford for his signature. The bill, S. 907, was introduced in December by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, to repeal provisions of a 2004 law that restricts public access to nearly all EMS data.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who supported the legislation, said the bill improves government transparency.

"Information is power and ... the power belongs to the people," Davis said. "Public officials who want to keep information secret have a very high burden to meet, and it cannot be met in this case. The people have the right to access information bearing on the effectiveness of our EMS rescue teams. This bill ensures they will."

Included in the bill is an amendment that keeps confidential the names of first-responders. The section was included at the urging of the S.C. EMS Association, which argued that EMTs, like nurses and doctors, are health care workers who must be protected from unfair scrutiny.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, praised Peeler for his work but said the names of paramedics should be public information.

"These are public servants like policemen and firemen, and the public has a right to know who they are, especially since they don't all wear name badges," Rogers said.

The names of EMS personnel can be obtained by those who receive EMS care, by relatives of deceased patients or by representatives of their estates, according to the latest version of the bill. The bill spares anyone found to have disclosed those identities from civil or criminal liability unless they acted in "bad faith or in a malicious manner."

Sanford has until midnight Wednesday to sign or veto the bill, said Ben Fox, Sanford's spokesman.

"We'll be looking at it carefully and responding within the allotted time frame," Fox said.

Problems with the current law became an issue when The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette requested ambulance response-time information last year from Beaufort County EMS. The county denied the request and asked the S.C. Attorney General whether it was required to release the data. An attorney general's opinion issued Aug. 19 said the law allows the county to withhold such data.

Peeler, who sponsored the bill that became the current law, has said he did so to allow state policies to mirror federal patient privacy laws and did not intend for the bill to shield EMS data from the public.

Attempts Thursday to contact Peeler for comment were unsuccessful.

If signed by Sanford, the law would go into effect immediately.