GREENFIELD — Medical information given to ambulance crews over a radio scanner will soon be a thing of the past, with technology upgrades for two fire departments.
That means people who listen to police, fire and ambulance runs over scanners will be hearing less information coming over the air.
Greenfield and Sugar Creek officials say reducing scanner traffic will help protect patient privacy, and additional upgrades will help the departments find where they’re going and file reports remotely.
The Greenfield Fire Territory and Sugar Creek Volunteer Fire Department are getting computers and software for their ambulances and fire trucks for mobile mapping and data filing. The upgrades will also enable the dispatch center to give ambulances patient medical information via computers as opposed to using radios, whose signals can be picked up over scanners for anyone to hear.
Greenfield Fire Chief James Roberts said the new system will ease his worries about violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a 1996 federal law that cracks down on how much patient medical information is readily available.
While part of HIPAA protects health insurance coverage for workers and their families if they change or lose their jobs, another aspect of the law sets privacy standards for entities that provide health care for patients. Generally, if an entity charges for its services, it falls under the rules.
Currently, when someone calls 911 and needs an ambulance for a medical emergency, the Emergency Operations Center dispatches the age, gender, address and medical symptoms to the responders.
Roberts said it’s easy for a person listening to a scanner to be able to identify a victim based on the description, even though the name is not given. He said that could be indirectly violating federal privacy rules under HIPAA.
“It’s very, very gray,” he said. “It’s all up to interpretation, who’s interpreting it.”
While the EOC probably doesn’t fall under HIPAA requirements when it dispatches medical information, Roberts said it’s less certain when it comes to that information reaching ambulance crews. The Greenfield Fire Territory charges for its services, so Roberts said even though dispatchers don’t give a name when they describe symptoms medics are about to encounter, it could be interpreted as violating the federal privacy law.
Gerald Morganthall, Sugar Creek fire chief, said he’s always been concerned about medical information being broadcast for anyone who owns a scanner to hear.
“If there’s a way to identify that individual, then you’re violating (HIPAA),” Morganthall said.
The new system will allow dispatch to transmit medical updates to ambulances via text onto the computer screens. Tuesday, Hancock County Commissioners unanimously approved information from the EOC being sent to the software company to the system can be installed.
Both fire departments will get the software at about the same time, early next year. Greenfield already has a computer in each of its fire trucks and ambulances; the software, totaling roughly $51,000, will be installed in January.
By February, medical information will be phased out of radio broadcasts and onto computers.
Sugar Creek is also spending roughly $50,000 on its upgrades, and Morganthall said there will be a learning curve.
Roberts said other fire departments in the Indianapolis area are making the change, and other Hancock County townships are considering the switch as well.
“They’re kind of the guinea pig in this,” said Dave Sutherlin, Buck Creek Township fire chief.
Sutherlin said Buck Creek may switch over to the new system once Greenfield and Sugar Creek get the kinks worked out. While medical information broadcast via radio may not be in violation of HIPAA, Sutherlin said it’s better to be safe and help protect patient privacy.
“All of our people out there in scanner land, they like knowing details. It’s not going to help that situation any,” Sutherlin said. “But I think with the information that’s transferred from the 911 center to the ambulance, you’ll get more accurate information and more information relayed before we arrive on scene.”
Roberts said he understands that some people who have scanners may be disappointed in the reduction of information, but patients often worry that their medical problems have been broadcast to the public. Sometimes, that’s the first question patients ask emergency medical technicians when they arrive on the scene.
The new equipment will also keep better records of when an emergency vehicle is dispatched or arrives on the scene, Morganthall said. Instead of calling into dispatch to report arriving on a scene, medics just have to push a button.
Mapping will help medics and firefighters get around and can even show where fire hydrants and other utilities are located.
The switch has been more than a year in the making. In December of last year, the Greenfield Board of Works approved a contract with Alpine Software for more than $60,000 for the upgrades, but Roberts said Alpine didn’t come through with their software.
The city is ending its agreement with Alpine, and in November the board approved contracts with ESO Solutions and Sungard Public to provide the same services.
Roberts said the upgrades will also help personnel file paperwork remotely, as opposed to jotting down notes at the scene and entering data back at the office.
“This is virtually the same thing law enforcement has been doing for years, with reporting and such,” Roberts said. “We’ve done paperwork every time we’ve done it. It simplifies the procedure tremendously.”