Governor signs law that opens EMS records to public review

Incident reports, response times and other EMS data are now available to the public under a new law signed Tuesday by Gov. Mark Sanford.

Ratified by both chambers of the state legislature last week, the law repeals provisions of a 2004 law that made access to nearly all operational EMS data off limits to the public.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, sponsored the original bill six years ago and introduced the revision in December. He said Tuesday he was proud to see it enacted.

"It's been a long row to hoe ... but we were able to clear up some confusion that had been on the books for the last several years," Peeler said. "It's a giant step forward."

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, trumpeted the new law as a victory for government transparency across the state, despite the inclusion of an amendment that keeps confidential the names of first responders.

"It's a great improvement and takes away the blanket of secrecy from EMS squads across the state," Rogers said.

The amendment 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.

Peeler said the final bill was "a fair compromise."

"Whether a paramedic should be treated like a doctor or a nurse or like a policeman or firefighter is a debate for another day," Peeler said.

Ben Fox, Sanford's spokesman, said the confidentiality clause gave the governor pause.

"The governor ultimately felt the benefits outweighed the risks and signed the bill," Fox 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 law. It spares people found to have disclosed those identities from civil or criminal liability unless they acted in "bad faith or in a malicious manner."

Problems with the previous 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 Aug. 19 said state law allowed the county to withhold such data.

Peeler said he did not intend for the original bill to shield EMS data from the public.

The new law goes into effect immediately.