First responder protection law clashes with privacy rights

Bill not useful, says privacy watchdog Elizabeth Denham

Elizabeth Denham

B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner is slamming a law aimed at ensuring that provincial first responders have more peace of mind for their health and safety.

Elizabeth Denham says the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act, has a “serious impact on the privacy rights of individuals.”

Bill 39, which was passed in May, allows police officers, firefighters and paramedics to seek court orders to access someone else’s medical records if the first responder has come into contact with bodily fluids.

“A lot of members in the course of their duty are bitten, stuck with a hypodermic needle, they get into an altercation and there’s an exchange of blood – you yourself may be cut or the suspect may be bleeding,” said Saanich police chief Mike Chadwick. “It’s going to be for those types of situations where … you don’t know whether they have a communicable disease like HIV, or Hep C or Hep B.”

Chadwick acknowledged that in instances where a first responder contacts bodily fluid, the other individual typically co-operates and provides relevant medical information. Bill 39 is to access the medical records of those who don’t co-operate.

Denham says that the bill will not be useful, as there are “very few instances where emergency responders contract communicable diseases.”

“Government should only contemplate a privacy intrusion of this nature where there is a significant demonstrated need,” she wrote in a letter to Margaret MacDiarmid, minister of labour, citizens’ services and open government. “Any initiative that limits (an individual’s right to control their bodily integrity) must strike a balance between the reasonableness of restricting an individual’s liberties with the commensurate need to infringe them. I do not see such a balance within Bill 39.”

At a press conference Tuesday held at Saanich fire hall No. 1, Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong, surrounded by 27 of the region’s first responders, championed the bill, spearheaded by Kelowna-Lake Country Liberal MLA Norm Letnick.

“There are issues of privacy that are still there, but the worst thing is that you’re exposed and you don’t know what you have,” she said. “And you are maybe taking a number of medications that you don’t need to take because you don’t know what you’ve been exposed to.”

In her letter, Denham writes that the time it will take for a judge to make a decision will be well past the ideal “immediate post-exposure treatment” timeline.

“It would likely be several weeks before (a first responder) would receive test results indicating whether an individual they had been in contact with had a communicable disease,” she wrote. “This would essentially negate any benefit to the emergency responder from a compelled test result.”

Oak Bay deputy police chief Kent Thom says the legislation is not meant as a privacy invasion, but as a means to protect first responders who are just doing their jobs.

“It’ll give our members more confidence in the fact that they’re a little bit better protected, and their families and the general public will be, too” he said. “It simply puts our members in a better position when they are out there doing what is required to keep the community safe.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com