Volunteer first-responder says he was suspended over Facebook post

Robson shared link to media report on Tuesday’s fatal shooting
Rescue 2 officer: There’s more to it than Facebook

By Kevin Spradlin

A volunteer member of Richmond County Rescue Squad has been suspended after being accused of violating patient privacy laws by posting about Tuesday’s fatal shooting on Facebook.

This screen shot of Adrian Robson's Facebook page shows what he shared and his comment early Tuesday afternoon.

This screen shot of Adrian Robson’s Facebook page shows what he shared and his comment early Tuesday afternoon.

Adrian Robson, 20, has been with the squad for nearly two years. Shortly after a Tuesday afternoon shooting in Rockingham, The Pee Dee Post published a report on the incident online at PeeDeePost.com. Robson was one of more than 100 individuals — and not the only rescue squad member — who subsequently shared the story through Facebook which, with more than 845 million users around the globe, is the world’s largest social media outlet. Through Facebook alone, more than 34,500 people saw the article. That doesn’t count readers who accessed the story in any other manner, including directly from PeeDeePost.com.

Along with sharing the link, Robson commented, “Well, first call of the day … what’s in store for this Tuesday?”

As originally published, the report included the name of shooting victim Mack Dewey Smith III. Less than an hour later, all references to the victim’s name were removed from the online news outlet’s initial report after it was learned that the victim had died after arriving at FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital from the single gunshot wound to the chest after Eric Whitfield discharged a single round from a .22-caliber rifle. A photo that showed the victim’s lower half being loaded into the back of an ambulance also was removed.

But at least two officers at the Richmond County Rescue Squad said the damage was done. Robson said Capt. Jason Smith and his wife, Lieut. Heather Smith, were furious. They contacted Robson, who said he was told that “I was going to get sued and I was going to jail.”

The officers alleged Robson had violated the patient’s right to privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountabilty Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

Adrian Robson

Adrian Robson

Robson said the Smiths then approached Assistant Chief Ed Hairfield to implement the suspension. He was told not to touch squad property, not to wear any Rescue 2 attire and not to respond to any Richmond County Rescue Squad calls until further notice. Robson said he requested a written copy of his suspension but was told a copy would be delivered by mail.

“Today’s been a very tense day,” Robson said on Wednesday after he had gone to the Rockingham Road facility to turn in his keys — at the department’s request — and said he was threatened to be escorted off the premises by police. Smith denied any such instance took place, adding that when contacted to turn in his keys, Robson indicated he was not in town at the moment. Smith said at the time Robson indicates he did arrive at the squad to turn in his key, no one was there.

“I’m trying not to let them get to me. I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Robson said. “I’ve tried not to worry about it. That didn’t work out.”

Jason Smith told the Post Thursday night said there’s more to the issue than the single Facebook post. Smith said Robson violated squad policy when he gave a statement to the Richmond County Daily Journal on Nov. 7 on the scene of a woman being struck by a car in a convenience store parking lot on Fayetteville Road. That report indicated that “Adrian Robson of the Richmond County Rescue Squad emerged from the ambulance several minutes later and reported the patient was in stable condition and would be taken to FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital for further evaluation.”

Smith said company policy clearly dictates no one but the chief speaks to the media.

“That is the one that he crossed,” Smith said, “and that is the reason he is suspended.”

Smith said Rescue 2 officials also are investigating whether or not Robson violated HIPAA when sharing the PeeDeePost.com report about the fatal shooting. But the suspension, Smith said, is not at all related to the Facebook post. Regardless of the outcome, Smith spoke highly of Robson’s dedication to the community and to the unit.

“Certainly, nobody wants to see anything bad happen to Adrian,” Smith said. “Adrian’s a good person. Even the best people make mistakes.”

Scott Waters, rescue chief since Sept. 11, 2001 and a member since June 1989, said the issue has been brought to his attention and he is in the process of gathering information.

“I’ve told him to be patient,” Waters said in a phone interview Thursday night. “We’ll try to have a meeting to get this resolved.”

Waters said Robson can appeal the suspension through a process established by the nonprofit organization’s bylaws. Upon appeal, Robson would appear before a panel of members that would include a member-at-large, officers of the squad other than the ones alleging the HIPAA violation, Waters himself and others, Waters said.

Waters said the department does not have a social media policy. When asked if this situation might prompt the implementation of one, he didn’t hesitate.

“Aw, yeah,” Waters said. “It’s something that’s gonna have to happen. It’s something we never thought of.”

Richmond County Rescue Squad leaders aren’t alone. Across the country, first-responders and their supervisors in both the public and private sectors have learned lessons — often the hard way — about how prevalent social media is. Tommy Cook is EMS director for Richmond County. He’s tasked with overseeing the continuing education for all EMS units, paid and volunteer, in the county; HIPAA is a hot topic.

The goal, Cook said, is “patient privacy. What is stressed to them is that it is in the best interest of the paid professionals, as well as the non-paid professionals … that the information dealing with patients are not communicated because in doing so, you actually infringe on their privacy.”

If someone asks if a patient had a heart attack, “my comment would be, ‘I can’t comment on that. If you’re seeking the answer to that question, you need to ask someone other than me,'” Cook said.

Cook can, for example, tell someone if an ambulance was dispatched and provide an address to which the ambulance responded. As to what rescue personnel did on scene, however — that’s off limits.

“I have a lot of folks who get angry at me, but it’s dealing with your privacy,” Cook said.

Cook said he preaches that if a first-responder is “asked a question about a particular call, you just need to refer them to HIPAA. What we do is try to protect the patient’s privacy.”

A fine line

It’s not always so easy to discern if a first-responder — a law enforcement officer, medical personnel and firefighters all are subject to HIPAA — has violated HIPAA, whether deliberately or unintentionally. And as the use of social media outlets has taken off, so, too, have the number of violations.

In a dated American Health Information Management Association report, even in 2010 social media was trouble for a North Dakota-based healthcare system with a group of nurses in Fargo “began using Facebook to provide unauthorized shift change updates to their co-workers. What once would have been a conversation became an update on their personal Facebook pages.”

It was a convenient tool, because the nurses had ‘friended’ each other through Facebook and thus could quickly read what each other wrote on their pages. They did not use patient names, but they did post enough specifics about patients so that the incoming nurses could prepare for their shift.

The problem was that everyone else “friended” to their Facebook pages could also read the information.

“I was shocked, after everything—all the reinforcing of HIPAA and privacy—and then for that to happen. It really took me by surprise,” says Becky Kirsch, RHIT, CCS, the director of health information management and privacy officer at Innovis Health. “We needed to remind staff that that was certainly a HIPAA violation. Even if you don’t use patient names, [someone else] can still put two and two together. Think if the employee has 300 friends, then 300 people could see that.

The American Academy of Opthalmology labels social media “a legal minefield.”

From the AAO and the Digital Media Law Project: In one case, Doe v. Green, a paramedic who treated a sexual assault victim posted information about the assault on his MySpace page. The paramedic did not disclose the patient’s name, but he mentioned where he picked her up and related her description of the sequence of events of the rape and her description of the assailant. According to the plaintiff, the media was able to locate her home from the information posted.

HIPAA Secure Now!, a New Jersey-based patient privacy consultant, suggests that personnel training is critical, as is the creation and implementation of appropriate policies.

“Employees need to understand how important it is to protect patient information and how to avoid data breaches,” the company website states. “Do not assume that employees understand the risks. Do not assume that employees know what a HIPAA violation is.”

Policies, according to HIPAA Secure Now!, “should clearly define the use of social media and detail how employees should protect patient information on social media. Policies should define the use of smartphones, pictures and posting information about patients.”

For his part, Robson said he enjoys “serving and protecting” the community through his work with the Richmond County Rescue Squad as well as Northside Volunteer Fire Department.

“I am very hurt at the remarks and allegations being made against me,” Robson said.

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  • Tj Davenport

    Let see. The boy is pictured falsely impersonating an officer of the squad if you will notice he is wearing a “captain” helmet and is not a captain on the rescue squad. He runs all over this town in his personal uniform wearing a badge and is NOT certified either as a fireman nor EMT in the state of North Carolina. Maybe his intentions are well but he defiantly leads people to believe he is something is is not. Everyone in the fire and EMS service knows giving information to the press is off limits unless you are authorized to do so. It opens up the door for great liability and for that he should’ve been suspended.

    • Courtney Stoddard

      Hey, dumb ass, he was dressed for a parade in that picture. He’s a VOLUNTEER for multiple different services that if needed, could save your life. Shut up.

  • Chris Lee Goodwin

    First of all, I am a Captain on Richmond County Rescue Squad. I DO NOT appreciate my name being slandered. I at no time had any part in this situation. I DID NOT participate in this call nor was I at this said meeting. At no time has anyone contacted me regarding this issue. Also, at no time have I given anyone permission to use my name in something I had no part in. There are laws about slander. Before my name gets put in the public eye again, you sure as hell better hope you have your facts straight. I’ve never had any issues with Adrian Robson. I do not understand his need to through me under the bus when no one even got my opinion on the situation.

  • Fed Up!

    Chris, Pee Dee Post is ALWAYS getting the facts wrong. Love how the
    picture for this story says Rockingham man arrested in shooting when
    Eric was NEVER UNDER ARREST AND NEVER CHARGED. Kevin Spradlin didnt even
    bother to ask the police what happened. He went off half cocked without
    all the facts. That seems to happen a lot. Wonder if he knows he could
    get sued for printing lies like this?h

  • Debra

    prayers for all and Our County always.We need to love one another and this County will be peaceful and wonderful.I pray for peace for our Dear old County.I feel we have good leaders we just need to all do our part.Stop hate and envy.Just be who Heavenly Father made you. And do our part.Abide by our laws and love each other.just saying……

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