St. Louis FD's appearance on 'Live Rescue' show suspended pending federal review

Federal officials will review whether the show breaches patient privacy rules


Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Fire Department’s participation in the cable TV show “Live Rescue” was suspended this week after federal officials launched a review of patient privacy on the program.

The Fire Department received a letter Wednesday announcing that U.S. Health and Human Services was reviewing the department’s partnership with the show for possible violations of federal patient privacy rules in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA.

The St. Louis Fire Department will suspend its participation in the TV show
The St. Louis Fire Department will suspend its participation in the TV show "Live Rescue" as federal officials investigate whether it breaches patient privacy rules. (Photo/St. Louis Fire Department Facebook)

The department’s participation on the show will be suspended until it can meet the requirements of a compliance review, said Jacob Long, a spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson.

“Live Rescue” is a reality TV series that features “almost live” feeds of fire crews and emergency medical service units in seven U.S. cities.

There are pre-taped segments, but a big draw of the show is “almost live” footage of emergency responses that usually airs within about 20 minutes after it is filmed. Since the show’s premiere in April, viewership has reached highs of at least 1.3 million some weeks, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The review was prompted by recent “media reports” that indicate the city is likely not in compliance with HIPAA, HHS officials told the city in a letter that arrived about three weeks after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story on the show that included privacy concerns.

St. Louis resident Dana Love said in the story that she was filmed without her consent after she was injured in an October car crash.

Love was in intense back pain waiting for an EMS crew to arrive at the scene of the crash in the Southampton neighborhood. When an ambulance pulled up, she said, she saw the TV crew’s lighting man and a television camera get out of the ambulance before she could spot a paramedic. Her sister began yelling for the cameras to move away, but Love said they continued filming and she remembers them following her into the ambulance as she received medical treatment.

Her segment never aired, likely because she never signed a release, St. Louis fire spokesman Garon Mosby said. Show producers said their policy dictates that they can’t film people inside ambulances without patient authorization. They also won’t film in a private residence without a consent form, a spokesperson for the show told the Post-Dispatch last month.

The letter from HHS asked the fire department to provide a list of information including dates and locations where the TV crews filmed. The show had crews in multiple fire units about four days a week to film for the 35 episodes that have aired since April.

HHS also asked for the number of patients that the TV crew may have filmed or overheard speaking with EMS staff and any complaints on the filming. The department has 20 days to provide the information.

Long said St. Louis fire officials believe they have stayed in compliance with HIPAA rules throughout the filming.

In a December interview with the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson acknowledged there had been moments when the camera crews got too close, but he said those had all been addressed and the crews would step back as soon as a patient objected to being filmed.

“If there’s ever a question of privacy, then it’s no problem, that call doesn’t make the show,” he said.

City leaders approved “Live Rescue” and the department signed an agreement with the show’s producer, Big Fish Entertainment, in April. The city receives no money from the deal and the department is contractually allowed to review all footage before it airs and make cuts.

In the department’s agreement with the producers, the department agreed to assume legal responsibility for any HIPAA violation, while the show agreed to compensate the city for any legal action and carries a $1 million commercial liability insurance policy.

HIPAA violations can result in mandates to correct any privacy violations and, in some cases, a fine or settlement.

HHS, which enforces HIPAA, says in its guidelines that medical providers should not allow crews to film areas where patient information would be disclosed without prior consent. Blurring a face or disguising a voice doesn’t necessarily solve the problem because HIPAA could be violated by the filming itself, according to the agency.

There have been cases where HIPAA violations related to reality TV shows resulted in payouts.

In New York, a woman named Anita Chanko was watching the medical reality show “NY Med” when she recognized footage of her husband receiving emergency surgery after he was hit by a sanitation truck. He later died from his injuries and the show never asked for her family’s consent to air the material, she told The New York Times. Her husband’s face was blurred but she recognized his voice and realized she was watching him die on TV.

She reached a $2.2 million settlement with the hospital.

Long, the St. Louis city spokesman, said HIPAA compliance reviews are not unusual in the city.

“St. Louis city and St. Louis Fire Department take patient privacy very seriously,” Long said. “Patient privacy is paramount. ‘Live Rescue’ is a show that tells the story of everyday heroes, and we’re proud of the way they’ve conducted themselves on the show.”

An HHS spokesman told the Post-Dispatch on Friday that the office does not comment on open investigations. It’s unclear if any other departments featured on “Live Rescue” are undergoing similar HIPAA compliance reviews, but at least one, the Sacramento Fire Department in California, had not received any similar complaints by Friday afternoon, according to fire officials there.

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©2020 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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