Answers sought in legality of Station fire phone recordings

Answers sought in legality of Station fire phone recordings

23 December 2011

published by

USA — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) pressed federal authorities Thursday to clarify whether the U.S. Forest Service violated privacy laws by recording telephone calls to an emergency center during the 2009 Station fire.

Schiff said a report he received from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general indicated that recordings made from two Angeles National Forest phone lines appeared to be illegal because callers were not given the opportunity to consent to being taped.

In an emailed statement, Schiff wrote that the “report suggests that the law was broken but inexplicably fails to reach a conclusion.”

The congressman sent a letter to Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong asking her to determine whether the Forest Service broke the law and, if so, to provide “the appropriate legal remedy [for] those whose calls were illegally recorded.”

The inspector general launched an investigation last year after government officials learned that dispatch phone recordings for the critical early hours of the Station fire were withheld from a Forest Service review team and from The Times, which requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.

An examination of all dispatch communications by radio and phone was important because of questions surrounding the Forest Service’s initial attack on the blaze, which became the biggest fire in Los Angeles County history.

The Forest Service rolled back its response to the flames at the end of the first day of the fire and did not fill a commander’s order for a heavy air assault at 7 the next morning, when the fire began to rage out of control.

Once they were released, the phone recordings did little to resolve conflicting accounts of whether the commander’s request for aircraft had been properly handled.

Schiff said in an interview Thursday that the inspector general’s findings on the privacy issue were “perplexing. … I think it’s a very incomplete report.”

Attempts to reach Fong and an Agriculture Department spokesman were unsuccessful Thursday.

Last week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a lengthy report on the Station fire that concluded the Forest Service did not use all the aircraft that might have been available on the second morning. But the report left unanswered key questions of why air tankers and helicopters were not deployed.

The blaze burned 250 square miles, destroyed more than 200 homes and other structures, and killed two county firefighters.

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