January 21, 1993
Mr. John J. Sheehan
P.O. Box 604
Binghamton, N.Y. 13902
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence. Dear Mr. Sheehan:
I have received your letter of January 8 in which you sought an opinion concerning access to reports prepared by fire departments and emergency squads. The correspondence attached to your letter indicates that you are not interested in obtaining medical information but rather the "names of those on the scene".
In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in section 87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law. Further, the introductory language of §87(2) refers to the authority to withhold "records or portions thereof" that fall within the scope of the grounds for denial that follow. The phrase quoted in the preceding sentence indicates that a single record or report may contain both accessible and deniable information. Moreover, that phrase in my opinion imposes an obligation upon agencies to review requested records in their entirety to determine which portions, if any, may justifiably be withheld.
Second, of relevance is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states that an agency may withhold records or portions thereof that:
"if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the provisions of subdivision two of section eighty-nine of this article...."
In addition, §89(2)(b) lists a series of examples of unwarranted invasions of personal privacy, the first two of which pertain to:
"i. disclosure of employment, medical or credit histories or personal references or applicants for employment;
ii. disclosure of items involving the medical or personal records of a client or patient in a medical facility..."
From my perspective, a record of a medical emergency call consists in great measure of what might be characterized as a medical record or history relating to the person needing care or service (see Hanig v. NYS Department of Motor Vehicles, 79 NY 2d 106 (1992)].
In my opinion, portions of records identifying those to whom medical services were rendered, their ages, and descriptions of their medical problems or conditions could be withheld on the ground that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, for disclosure of a name coupled with those details in my view represents a personal and somewhat intimate event in the individual's life. However, I believe that other aspects of the records, such as the names of volunteer firemen present at the scene, the locations of calls or addresses, should be disclosed. In my view, an emergency call, particularly when sirens or flashing lights are used, is an event of a public nature. When a fire truck or ambulance travels to its destination, that destination is or can be known to those in the vicinity of the event. In essence, I believe that event is of a public nature and that disclosure of an address or a brief description of an event would not likely constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Nevertheless, the personally identifiable details described earlier could in my view be withheld.
Lastly, it is noted that the Freedom of Information Law is permissive; although an agency may withhold records falling within the exceptions to rights of access, there is no requirement that records must be withheld. As indicated by the Court of Appeals:
"while an agency is permitted to restrict access to those records falling within the statutory exemptions, the language of the exemption provision contains permissive rather than mandatory language, and it is within the agency's discretion to disclose such records, with or without identifying details, if it so chooses" [Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562, 567 (1986)]. I hope that I have been of some assistance. Should any further questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Richard W. Trebilcock