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‘VIP incidents’: Guidelines for handling incidents involving celebrities

While celebrities should be treated just like any other patient, there are unique privacy and media challenges to consider

tiger woods car crash

In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo a vehicle rests on its side after a rollover accident involving golfer Tiger Woods, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

In the modern age of social media and instantaneous information sharing, handling “VIP incidents” – those involving a celebrity or VIP – in the fire and EMS services has become more challenging than ever. Fire departments large and small can quickly find themselves the focus of intense media and public scrutiny, even as an incident is still unfolding.

In addition to the normal factors that company officers and fire administrators must consider, VIP incidents present unique challenges, many related to privacy, increased attention and ongoing requests for information.

‘Long tail’ incidents

The unique issues that accompany a VIP incident often come into play as soon as the 911 call is received, and can last weeks, months or even years after the conclusion of an emergency. Brian Humphrey, a legendary PIO colleague of mine at the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD), calls this phenomenon the “long tail” of an incident. Requests for 911 audio, radio dispatch traffic, call logs, incident reports, and media interviews with department employees involved in the incident can continue for years, along with legal issues such as depositions and subpoenas.

For example, even though pop superstar Michael Jackson died in 2009, the LAFD still fields a number of requests annually for records about our response to his fatal incident and interviews with the paramedics who responded to the call.

Recent VIP incidents

VIP incidents are not limited to large, municipal departments in places like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. While the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) was in the spotlight in 2020 as a result of the helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others, so too was the New London (Conn.) Fire Department after Zappos founder and tech entrepreneur Tony Hsieh died after sustaining injuries in a house fire last November.

In late February, the LACoFD was again the focus of international media attention after golfer Tiger Woods suffered serious injuries in a car crash in the Rancho Palos Verdes community.

Privacy matters

Perhaps the thorniest issue at VIP incidents is privacy, especially at incidents that involve EMS. Patient and personal privacy is paramount at all incidents, and many fire agencies also fall under federal HIPAA guidelines that govern the release of medical information. Maintaining patient confidentiality during VIP incidents is challenging but critical.

Potential violations of HIPAA can occur at news conferences, during media interviews, or by the inappropriate release of improperly redacted records. But the biggest privacy “watch out” these days, which continues to bedevil both fire and law enforcement agencies, is the documentation and sharing of pictures and videos by first responders at the scene of emergency incidents. Not only is this in poor taste, but the activity often violates department policy and can open the individuals taking and sharing the pictures to criminal and civil liability.

A federal judge in Los Angeles recently ruled that the names of four LA County Sheriff’s deputies who either took or shared gruesome pictures at the scene of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash could be publicly named as part of an ongoing lawsuit by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa. Those names were subsequently released and highly publicized.

Even if a department has an on-scene photo or video policy, any official sharing of incident photos on department social media sites and among employees must be carefully considered for HIPAA, privacy and even potential evidential issues if there’s an ongoing law enforcement investigation of the incident. As illustrated above, any improperly taken or shared photos can also be used in civil proceedings.

On the flip side, first responders need to be aware that the media and members of the public armed with smartphones (nearly everyone these days) are not bound by HIPAA or other privacy restrictions. Though state and local laws and ordinances vary, filming on public property is generally protected under the First Amendment.

And while responders’ instincts often veer toward protecting a patient’s privacy, best practice is to remain professional while accomplishing the necessary fire suppression, patient care and other tasks appropriate to the situation. They should not attempt to block filming efforts nor give impromptu interviews about the incident.

Managing the media

After the operational phase of an incident has concluded, the media and public’s quest for information does not dissipate, in fact, it usually greatly increases. This is the moment when most agencies hold a news conference, often in concert with allied agencies, including law enforcement.

This is also a situation where HIPAA restrictions remain in effect. Most of the time, the media will already know which celebrity or VIP is involved in the incident and will ask questions about the patient’s condition and details surrounding what first responders encountered on the scene. Frequently at this point, bystander or media video is already widely circulating online and on TV.

For example, the media may ask you directly to confirm that the patient is the celebrity or VIP in question or relate details they’ve seen on bystander video and ask you to confirm the extent of the injuries. While it could feel silly to decline to confirm something as basic as the patient’s identity when it’s already in the public domain, doing so would be a HIPAA violation, so it’s best to remain vague and not break confidentiality.

If you were the PIO handling the Tiger Woods crash, for instance, you could safely say, “Upon arrival at the scene of the one-car collision, our firefighters encountered a male patient in his 40s with multiple extremity injuries. He was rapidly extricated from the vehicle and transported in critical condition to a local trauma center.”

In these VIP cases, law enforcement agencies are often unencumbered by any HIPAA restrictions so they can provide the information your agency may be prohibited from disclosing.

In the Tiger Woods accident, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was the agency that proactively released details of the crash via social media, including the superstar’s identity, which took significant pressure off the fire department to address those issues. Even at a live news conference where your hands may be tied by HIPAA, law enforcement or other agencies can provide specific details that answer the media’s questions.

Records release

In the days, weeks and months following a high-profile VIP incident, your department can expect a flow of records requests that include follow-up media interviews, 911 audio, radio traffic, and incident reports.

It’s crucial that your department works closely with the attorneys in your superseding organization to follow (or establish) processes for the release of information. Records should be requested via whatever public records procedures your organization or municipality already have in place. Most of the records involved in these cases are public in some form or another, but many are protected by HIPAA and rules vary by jurisdiction.

At the LAFD, we release 911 audio between our dispatchers and the callers; however, the tapes are redacted to comply with HIPAA if it’s an EMS incident. Typically, we do not release any portion of patient care records, as they are protected by HIPAA in their entirety, but we will release redacted dispatch records. We usually do not release radio traffic because the media tends to capture that from their own scanners, but we would provide it if requested.

You can also expect media to possibly show up without notice to the local fire or EMS station that responded to the incident for follow-up interviews with front-line personnel. Company officers should be aware of the organization’s procedures for handling media requests, and a specific PIO or agency representative should be assigned to handle all communications regarding an incident and its aftermath to avoid the release of conflicting or mixed messaging.

Consistency is key

Overall, celebrity and VIP incidents are infrequent occurrences. The best tip for when they do happen is to strive to treat the incident in the same way you would any other. Consistency is key! Even though these incidents can present additional stressors and challenges, by treating them just like the dozens, hundreds or thousands of responses your organization handles every year, you’ll have a tried-and-true method to handle the unexpected.

Peter Sanders is public information director at the Los Angeles City Fire Department. He is a senior-level communications professional with 18 years of crisis communications, marketing, strategic media relations and journalism experience. Sanders was previously the deputy mayor for communications for the City of Los Angeles and worked as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to communications, Sanders was a NREMT-paramedic and worked for various 911 systems in California and Texas.