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Interview: Erich Scheunemann, Assistant Fire Chief, Anchorage Fire Department

HIPAA Journal is conducting interviews with healthcare professionals and service providers to find out more about their compliance journeys, how the HIPAA Rules have affected their working lives, and the successes and challenges they have faced with HIPAA compliance. This week, Erich Scheunemann, Assistant Fire Chief for the Anchorage Fire Department in Alaska shares his thoughts.

Erich Scheunemann, Assistant Fire Chief, Anchorage Fire Department (Alaska)

Tell the readers about your career in the healthcare industry

I have served over 32 years in EMS and the Fire Service within a variety of public, private, volunteer, and contract agencies. I’ve been employed with the Anchorage Fire Department since 1998, holding numerous positions within the department including Firefighter/Paramedic, EMS Battalion Chief, Assistant Fire Chief, Training Chief, Chief of EMS, Health & Safety Officer, and Chief of Mobile Integrated Healthcare. I have Associate and Bachelor of Science degrees in Fire Service Administration, am a licensed Paramedic, and am certified as a Fire Service Instructor, Ambulance Compliance Officer, Ambulance Privacy Officer, and Peer Support Specialist. I’m also a member of the Alaska Maternal and Child Death Review Committee and the Alaska EMS Medical Direction Committee, as well as a volunteer group leader/peer supporter with the Southcentral Foundation Family Wellness Warrior Soldier’s Heart Post-Traumatic Stress training program for first responders and combat veterans.

What was your first position?

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My first position(s) in Fire/EMS occurred after graduating from high school and while starting college. I obtained my Emergency Medical Technician certification as an elective college course and began working as an EMT for a basic life support service in Anchorage whose duty was to respond to public inebriates, assess them for medical needs, and then either take them to a sobering center, the hospital for medical clearance, or call for an advanced life support ambulance if needed. I was also a volunteer firefighter/EMT in my hometown north of Anchorage as well.

What is your current position?

I am an Assistant Fire Chief with the Anchorage Fire Department within our Operations Division. My current duties are Chief of EMS Operations, Health and Safety Officer, and Chief of Mobile Integrated Healthcare. My subordinates include an EMS QA/QI Officer, EMS Compliance Officer, three work shift Incident Safety Officers, and the AFD Mobile Crisis Team (911 behavioral health response team with a firefighter/paramedic and licensed behavioral health clinician).

What are the main challenges in your position?

Multiple areas of responsibility and a lack of resources. For a metro-sized public safety service, each of my “hats” that I wear should be an individual position, not shared responsibilities by one individual. As an Assistant Fire Chief, I also have other duties as assigned including strategic planning, internal/external stakeholders, finances, and strings of unending meetings. As my subordinates are just as busy it is easy to become overwhelmed and behind in project work.

Tell the readers about any significant event in your career.

Early in my career, I was a witness (as the EMS provider on an incident) in a federal trial that involved traveling to three different U.S. states over a period of several years to testify in court. This was a solid introduction to the importance of documentation in healthcare records and how details make all the difference, especially to assist when having to recall them years later.

Are you working on any interesting projects?

My EMS QA/QI officer and I are currently involved with a year-long national project to evaluate and safely reduce the use of lights and sirens on ambulances with the goal to update our current policies and procedures for triaging when ambulances should use these warning signals when responding to incidents or transporting patients to the hospitals. I am also involved in the early stages of a discussion to bring an IRB-approved prehospital medication trial into our EMS service.

When did you first get involved with HIPAA compliance?

I became our department’s Privacy Officer when one of my subordinates at the time, an EMS Battalion Chief designated as such, retired in 2015. As Chief of EMS, HIPAA fell within my domain, so I was actively involved in policy development and training well before that. I had long identified the need for a dedicated EMS Compliance Officer position and during a reorganization in 2020 I was able to pass my Privacy Officer duties to the new position.

What are your main challenges regarding HIPAA?

A large public safety organization that is a covered entity presents many unique challenges with HIPAA. While all EMTs and paramedics receive the training as part of their initial certifications, and upon hire into my organization and with an annual refresher henceforth, reinforcing sound practices within such a large organization with multiple reporting systems and databases, plus billing for services, is a challenge at best.

What do you think needs to be improved in the HIPAA regulations?

Some of the proposed HIPAA regulation changes, once a final rule has been made, will be a move in the right direction (specifically in regard to changes with the notice of privacy practices and increasing the ability to share PHI for behavioral health care). As with any governmental regulation, any clarification of current language is always helpful. And eliminate the use of fax machines for the transmission of PHI documents.

Do you have any predictions for the future of HIPAA?

My hope is future regulatory changes can be made to ease the complexity of the program for the end user and customer.

Do you have any predictions for the future of healthcare regulation?

Unfortunately, with ever-changing information sharing and storage technology and the complexities within the world of privacy protection and practices, I do not see future healthcare regulations becoming any easier to navigate through.

Do you have any predictions for the future of healthcare technology?

More automation of healthcare technological systems including AI integration into not only daily operations but also into research and predictive analysis within healthcare in general.

Do you have any predictions for the future of the healthcare industry?

Science, technology, and evidence-based patient care will be the continuing drivers of healthcare throughout the rest of this century. But against this progress will be the calamities of climate change, the emergence of novel diseases, and other environmental and human-caused marginalization, disasters, and war that will continue to negatively impact global health and significantly impact its healthcare systems.

Do you have anything else interesting to share with readers?

Thank you, HIPAA Journal, for this opportunity. Lastly, if you have never been to Alaska, I strongly encourage a bucket list trip to the 49th state. Whether by cruise line, plane, train, car, bicycle, or hiking, the wilderness is boundless here and well worth the visit at least once!

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.


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