Monitoring and the
On Air but no longer On Line
Several months ago, visitors to the Palm Beach County Florida Fire
Rescue web site were greeted with the following message when they tried to link
to that site’s live scanner audio. “Due to implementation of recently enacted
HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, Palm
Beach County Fire Rescue's live scanner site has been discontinued
Similarly around the nation, officials at the local government
level are taking notice of their own municipalities' police and fire audio being
rebroadcast (or webcast as it's now called) live on the Internet. Some cities
are trying to put a stop to it.
In the case of Palm Beach County, officials are concerned that
their own participation in the rebroadcast of private, personal medical
information could violate HIPAA. The Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-191) was enacted as part of a broad
Congressional attempt at healthcare reform. The Administrative Simplification
aspect of HIPAA requires the United States Department of Health and Human
Services (DHHS) to develop standards and requirements for the maintenance and
transmission of health information that identifies individual patients.
This “simplification” is to improve the efficiency and
effectiveness of the healthcare system by standardizing the exchange of
electronic data for certain specified administrative and financial transactions.
It is also to protect the security and confidentiality of electronic health
information, and this is where it conflicts with live scanner audio online.
It is in this maintaining of privacy due to HIPAA that Palm Beach
County and others have become concerned. All healthcare organizations that
maintain or transmit electronic health information must comply with HIPAA. As a
health care provider, Palm Beach Fire Rescue found itself in the uncomfortable
position of potentially revealing private, personal medical information
unintentionally to anyone who was listening to their online live scanner audio.
Since wrongful disclosure of individually identifiable health information could
result in a fine of $50,000 and or imprisonment up to one year, the decision was
made to suspend the live scanner audio feed.
Which laws may prohibit and which laws may protect the
webcasting of live scanner audio online has been the topic of many postings on
the several forums of user groups dedicated to the subject. Early in 2003, Steve
Grasha, the 44 year old publisher of an online newspaper in Palm Springs,
California, received a notification from the City of Palm Springs asking him to
stop his webcasting of that city’s police and fire radio communications.
At the beginning of 2003, Grasha had added a link to his online
newspaper’s web site which allowed others to listen in on the live scanner audio
of the Palm Springs Police and Fire. According to The Desert Sun, another
Palm Springs newspaper, Grasha is a perpetual candidate for City Council and
Grasha, who studied police science and graduated from Fullerton
College and the North Orange County Police Reserve Academy in 1981, should know
the law. He has previously worked on Capitol Hill as administrative assistant in
the U.S. Congress. He’s been assistant to the Mayor of the City of Buena Park,
California. And he’s worked as campaign coordinator for former
entertainer-turned-Senator Sonny Bono. So why would someone like this ignore the
pleas of a city official accusing him of violating the law?
In an April message, James W. Runge, Director of Information
Technology for the City of Palm Springs wrote:
Hello Mr. Grasha. This is to inform you that you are in violation of
Title 47 Section 605 of the United States Code. This refers to the
"Unauthorized publication or use of Communications". The penalties for this
section are fines up to $50,000 and or 2 years in prison. The FCC is aware of
this violation but I have asked them to let me handle it first. I request the
[sic] you remove our frequencies from your web site at once. Failure to do so
will result in my turning this over to the FCC to handle. Your immediate
cooperation in this matter is appreciated. Please let me know when you have
removed our frequencies.
Thus began an exchange between the City of Palm Springs and Mr.
Grasha’s newspaper, The Palm Springs Village Voice in an article headed
"Title 47 of the United States Code Section 605 versus the First Amendment." Mr.
I suggest you read the constitution of the United States
of America. You might start with the first amendment.
As a recognized member of the press, I am certain that the
first will way [sic] heavily on any courts decision in this case!
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom
of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The Palm Springs Village Voice
And the City responded:
I would suggest that you read title 47
chapter 5 subchapter VI section 605 of the United States Code. If it is not
removed from the site in 24 hours it will be turned over to the FCC for
enforcement. They are already aware of it and wanted to enforce it right away,
but I asked them to wait until I could notify the owner of the site. If you
continue to broadcast it action will be taken.
In the end Mr. Grasha’s newspaper and the City of Palm
Springs quietly moved on to other issues. A visit to The Palm Springs Village
Voice web site today reveals no links that we could find to online live
scanner audio from Palm Springs or anywhere else.
Plenty of Online Action
As for online live scanner audio, it's alive and well in
America for now. A recent visit to an online forum on the topic where users can
share information counted almost ten thousand messages since the year 2000 when
the group started. An online search will turn up dozens of police and fire
dispatch channels available via online streaming.
Attempts to contact representatives of Palm Beach County, the
City of Palm Springs, and the Palm Springs Village Voice whose web site
was last updated at the start of last fall were unsuccessful.
Disclaimer: Information in this column is
provided for its news and educational content only. Nothing here should be
construed as giving specific legal advice. Persons desiring legal advice about
their specific situation should consult an attorney licensed in their