Q&A: Names of homeowners in house fire


From the Lebanon Reporter:

Q: The Zionsville Fire Department refuses to give us the names of the homeowners in a March 29 house fire. They are contending that we need to file a public records request for an incident report. They said they rely on information dispatch sends out and never give names in press releases.

A: Government agencies can always require the filing of an Access to Public Records Act request if they want to insist on it.

In the case of most police or fire departments, they know the beat reporter is going to be asking every day, so they generally work out a system for the reporter to get the reports without having to make the same written request over and over again.

I think you need to talk to the fire chief and possibly the mayor about the newspaper’s desire to get copies of the “INFIRS” reports. Those are the state’s version of the National Fire Incident Reporting System.

They should be completing these forms so they are eligible for Fire Act grants. These are disclosable records, according to an attorney for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, although there are some exceptions.

If the fire run is to provide medical service, then there’s a concern with HIPAA. Erring on the side of caution, they may withhold information about an injured person in those cases.

The other exception is that if the fire was intentionally set, the report may be considered an investigatory record, which means they would have the discretion to keep it confidential (but they don’t have to).

Most of the fire runs are not going to bump into either situation, so you should be able to set up a system to get copies of the reports and then deal with the exceptions when they pop up.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.