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First responders sharing reminder to bystanders to respect patients’ privacy


Elizabeth Medora

NORTH VALLEY – If you or your loved ones were hurt in an accident, how would you want bystanders to react? Local first responders are asking residents to take into consideration how they would feel in an emergency situation and to keep in mind that patient privacy is a central part of patient care.

Daisy Mountain Fire Department Public Information Officer Captain Dave Wilson noted that first responders expect bystanders at emergency scenes, and that bystanders can be helpful. However, when bystanders ignore requests to move back from the scene, get in the way of the emergency responders, or take photos or videos of the scene, they are then jeopardizing the safety of the scene and the privacy of those involved.

“Witnesses, friends, or family who have important information regarding the patient or scene can be a valuable asset to emergency responders,” Wilson said. “However, when emergency responders arrive on scene, we ask that bystanders respect that they have an important job to do that can be dangerous at times to onlookers. If asked to stand back, move away, or stand in a certain area, please cooperate.  Crowding the scene can be dangerous to rescuers, patients, and bystanders. Furthermore, this makes it difficult to protect the patients’ privacy. If you have important information that is critical for responders to know, share the information and then please step back. When responders have to continually address crowds, it can take critical manpower away from the patient or patients who need us most.”

The age of camera phones has presented emergency workers with new issues. With the ease of taking photos and sharing them via social media, new policies have been implemented to ensure patient privacy.

“Taking pictures and video of emergency scenes has become very common,” Wilson noted. “Again, if that were your family member, would you want strangers photographing them in this moment?”

Hospitals have also added policies due to camera phones. Jonathan Wallach, HIPAA Privacy and Data Security Officer for HonorHealth, noted that HonorHealth facilities have implemented strict policies regarding photos taken of patients.

“With the proliferation of camera phones, HonorHealth had to amend its photography policy to include any digital recording,” Wallach said. “The policy requires that the patient give permission before any photo of them is taken or recorded.”

Wilson noted another issue with accident scene photos and videos – they could be used in investigations and lawsuits. 

“Also, it is not uncommon for that video to be used during investigations or even at times, lawsuits,” Wilson cautioned. “If you don't have a desire to become a part of the investigation or spend time in court, please refrain from taking pictures or videos and use extreme caution when posting such content online. Pictures and videos posted to the Internet are there forever, even if you feel that it is being shared on a “private” site. This content is shared and most always, never permanently erased.”

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), health information such as your medical record and treatment consultations is private and cannot be shared by insurance companies or healthcare providers, including first responders.

Wilson noted that first responders cannot answer the majority of questions that are asked at an emergency scene; no specifics on patients will be shared publicly. The first responders’ focus is on patients’ care and dignity, and patients’ privacy is paramount.

“Information that can be shared is limited to the nature or reason for our response (medical, fire, car accident, water rescue, etc.), the location in which the incident has occurred, approximate age and gender of the patient or patients and if they are being transported, how (by ground ambulance or by helicopter),” Wilson specified. “Questions specific to the cause of the accident or emergency, patients’ names, if drugs or alcohol were suspected, or who was at fault are all questions that DMFD simply cannot and will not answer.”

To get basic information on local emergencies, check or or email Captain Wilson directly at

“DMFD is dedicated to keeping its customers informed and up to date on all major emergencies,” Wilson said.

Wallach noted that, in general, HIPAA requires that any sharing of patient information be pursuant to patient permission in the form of a patient, or patient representative, signed authorization. Hospitals may share general directory information on patients.

“General directory information includes: patient name, location of patient in the facility, and general condition that does not communicate any specific medical condition or diagnosis,” Wallach explained. “Often, the hospital will make certain classes of patients, like VIPs and crime victims “no information”, which means that the hospital will not share any information, including if anyone calls and asks for the patient by name.”

Bystanders can definitely be helpful – they may be the first people to call 911 in an emergency. Wilson encouraged bystanders to call 911, noting that the automatic aid system will dispatch the closest emergency unit, no matter what agency’s jurisdictional boundaries you’re in.

“This means citizens can call 911 from anywhere and get the quickest response from the closest Fire Department unit anytime,” Wilson said.

Wilson offered guidelines for bystanders and witnesses at emergency scenes:

  1. Share pertinent information immediately and move back.
  2. Don't crowd the scene.
  3. Remember, respect the patients’ privacy.
  4. Respect boundaries set by emergency responders.

When it comes down to it, honoring patients’ privacy is all about respect.

“Before approaching responders to inquire about a patient, an accident, a fire, or even the reason we have responded to your neighbor’s home, ask yourself, ‘Would you appreciate the fire department sharing your personal information or facts about your family’s emergency with strangers?’” Wilson emphasized.