EMS advisors violate open information laws

The committee charged with reviewing emergency response times and standards has been repeatedly non-compliant with the Freedom of Information Act, according to Town Clerk records.

The EMS Review Committee has never submitted advance notice of any of its meetings with the Town Clerk’s office, records show, since its 2009 inception. By law, public bodies must provide notice of a meeting at least 24 hours in advance.

As of Tuesday, March 12, the committee had also not filed minutes from its last two meetings, with one going back to November 2012. Draft minutes are supposed to be made available to the public within seven days of the meeting, according to state statute.

It took almost a year after the committee’s first two meetings for minutes to be submitted to the Town Clerk’s office. There could be more meetings with minutes yet to be filed, but because no agendas have been submitted, it’s difficult to determine what has been left out, if anything.

Tom Hennick, a spokesman for the state Freedom of Information Commission, said the committee faces no immediate penalties for its apparent lack of openness, but that could change if someone files a complaint.

“The Freedom of Information Commission could declare null and void everything they’ve ever done, which the commission has the power to do,” Hennick warned. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but they’re vulnerable, I’d say.”

No complaints have been filed with Hennick’s commission against the EMS Review Committee.

While there is a 30-day statute of limitations on filing a freedom of information (FOI) complaint after an alleged violation, that statute is waived if meeting minutes have never been filed, Hennick said.

The EMS Review Committee is the only town committee with no information about its members, meetings or minutes on the town website. Three boards are also not on the site — Building Board of Appeals, Police Pension Board and Board of Ethics, according to Jayme Stevenson, first selectman.

“There is no rationale,” Stevenson said, regarding a lack of EMS committee information on the town site, “other than there has been no content to put up.”

The Darien Times began inquiring into whether the committee was complaint with FOI this week. Dr. Jose Cara, committee chairman, told The Times that this week he received, for the first time, what Cara called “the Darien handbook for commissioners,” which outlines FOI responsibilities and rules of governance.

Stevenson said the committee should have been given this book when it was first formed in 2009. That happened under then First Selectman Evonne Klein’s administration.

“I can’t say if they were ever given this originally, but I have provided them with a new copy in the event they weren’t provided it initially,” Stevenson stated in an email.

Klein did not respond to requests for comment. She was recently appointed by Gov. Dannel Malloy and confirmed by legislators to serve as head of the newly formed state Department of Housing, where she will focus on affordable housing issues.

Cara said it was his understanding that all announcements and minutes had been filed with the Town Clerk. When told that no minutes have been filed since June 2012, and that not a single advance notice of a meeting had been filed since 2009, he expressed confusion as to how that could be the case.

“I don’t know why,” Cara said. “I’ll have to circle back with the secretary. When I last talked to her, she said she had submitted all minutes.”

Sue Maguire, the committee’s secretary, did not respond to requests for comment. Ultimately the responsibility falls on the chairman, in this case Cara, according to state statute.

Confounding the matter further, the committee’s mission was updated last year by the Board of Selectmen to specifically include the need for them to be compliant with FOI. That was in June of 2012 — the last time any EMS committee minutes have been filed.

Cara said many of the meetings involve confidential health information, so executive sessions are often the result, in which case the public is excluded from participation. However, no notice has been provided from these meetings either.

Even if notice of these meetings had been posted, the executive session would need to called after opening the meeting publicly, and the reason for the private meeting would need to be stated, according to Hennick of the FOI commission.

“The law says that every public agency must have an agenda, have an open meeting and have minutes when the meeting is over,” Hennick said. “Even if the only item is an executive session, it still needs to open in public.”

When asked if the EMS committee has consulted with other EMS-related public bodies in neighboring towns to compare best practices, Cara said he wasn’t aware of similar committees nearby.

“My sense is Darien is quite unique in that way,” he said. “If [we’re not compliant with FOI], we’ll obviously have to get our act together… Anything we need to do to make sure we’re transparent — we’re willing to do whatever it takes.”

“There is nothing to be gained by hiding anything,” Cara added.

Walter Casey, a Darienite who’s been vocal about the need for town-based paramedics, disagrees, and his opinion was iterated last week in a letter to this newspaper’s editor.

“If there was nothing to hide,” Casey wrote, “why would this committee be taking such extraordinary means to keep their deliberations secret?”

Stevenson would not comment on whether she supported any changes in the EMS committee’s membership.

“Any changes that may be made to the committee or its membership will be made by the entire Board of Selectmen after full discussion,” Stevenson said.

The committee is comprised of doctors, nurses and EMS professionals, and all serve on a volunteer basis. The committee has zero oversight over the volunteer-based Darien-EMS Post 53, and serves only as an advisory body to the Board of Selectmen.

Medical response

Last year, five people were pronounced dead at the scene after Post 53 responded. However, according to data provided by Ron Hammer, Post 53 director, response times have, on average, been within national standards.

“Response times played no role in the outcome of these calls,” Hammer said of the dead-on-arrivals, adding that they were all within 10 minutes and most were cases where obvious death had already occurred.

Paramedic response times in 2012 were on average three minutes slower than EMS times, as paramedics arrive from Stamford, averaging 9 minutes 21 seconds.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, did a study in 2004 examining what’s known as the “eight-minute standard” for paramedics. FEMA found this standard, while lacking validity as a “clinical performance measure,” is still “useful and appropriate” to use as an “operational process measure.”

However, a study by the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine found that response times within eight minutes “was not associated with improved survival to hospital discharge after controlling for several important confounders, including level of illness severity.”

The group found that response times within four minutes did improve the survival rate of patients with “intermediate or high risk of mortality.”

The American Heart Association’s has stated that brain death starts to happen within four to six minutes after a heart attack. Studies show that a victim’s chances of survival are reduced by 7-10% with every minute that passes without defibrillation and advanced life support intervention, according to EMT Gary Ludwig, who writes for EMSWorld.com.

“Few attempts at resuscitation succeed after 10 minutes,” Ludwig said.

Several other public bodies in town also appear to be in violation of FOI. Check out next week’s Darien Times to find out which ones.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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