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Local fire districts revving up cross-border assistance

Palo Alto and Menlo Park personnel will respond to fires within each others' service areas

When a wildfire ignited grasslands in Pearson Arastradero Preserve on Wednesday afternoon, the various city and county fire departments that responded ignored their usual boundaries.

Multiple fire agencies, including Palo Alto's and Menlo Park's, battled five blazes that could have harmed people and property had the response not been rapid. Pastures that contain about 155 horses are just 200 feet from the burned area, and the hills are surrounded by homes in Portola Valley and Los Altos.

The joint attack is one example of how fire responses will look in the near future due to expanding automatic-aid agreements. One year ago, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved a new arrangement between the Palo Alto and Menlo Park fire-protection districts in which engines and personnel in closest proximity to a fire or emergency will respond -- regardless of jurisdiction.

The agreement covers Code 3 incidents, which require a siren and red flashing lights. Paramedic services are not included.

Although the two agencies have cooperated since 1999, the updated arrangement will ensure that one truck company and a battalion chief from each agency will be present on the scene, allowing for better direction for personnel. The departments are also looking at ways to meld their communications and dispatch systems.

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the 2010 plane crash into an East Palo Alto residential neighborhood brought to light the need for a new agreement. Confusion among the various departments responding to the incident led to his initiation of discussions with Palo Alto, he said.

The main reason for the agreement is maximum protection for the residents of both cities in the shortest amount of time, he said.

Fire departments have had a traditional culture of "turfing," he noted. He recalled a 1943 newspaper article he found that quoted a Menlo Park fire chief who was angry after Palo Alto had responded to a fire on his side of the border near San Francisquito Creek.

"He told the Palo Alto fire chief to 'get the hell out' of his town," Schapelhouman said. "We're in 2012. Government works more efficiently if we all work together. At the end of the day, it's better for the citizens of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. In an emergency, they want the closest resource."

A mutual response to a house fire on Jasmine Way in East Palo Alto on July 31 helped keep a second home -- where an elderly disabled woman lived -- from serious fire damage, he said.

Also last month, crews from both departments kept contained a Baylands grass fire that came within feet of homes in an adjacent East Palo Alto neighborhood.

Under the agreement, Menlo Park fire crews will go into Palo Alto as far as Embarcadero Road and up to Interstate 280 to the west, and to West Bayshore Road to the east. Palo Alto personnel will cover Menlo Park from Sand Hill Road and San Francisquito Creek to Valparaiso, Ravenswood and Ringwood avenues to the north (See map).

Palo Alto fire protection will extend into East Palo Alto from Highway 101 to Bay Road and to Cooley Landing. Menlo Park Fire will respond to emergencies at the Palo Alto Municipal Airport and in the surrounding Baylands, as well as providing water rescue in the San Francisquito Creek.

Schapelhouman said he hopes the entire program will be running by the end of the year. The real work to be done is within the dispatch center, which would send out the nearest units. Both agencies must find ways to meld or revise their different communications systems, he said.

Palo Alto fire department personnel and Schapelhouman will meet next week to talk about providing Palo Alto with additional communications equipment. Both departments recently conducted major radio system improvements so that they can talk on each department's frequencies, he said.

"We shouldn't rush that part because we need to do the analytics every time we make a change to ensure that the change is actually an improvement and working the way we want it to," he said.

Geo Blackshire, Palo Alto Fire deputy chief of operations, said a trial run in East Palo Alto in the last year has worked out well. While initially there were concerns that the aid would be lopsided, Blackshire said that has not turned out to be the case. Palo Alto has benefited when incidents occur closer to a Menlo Park station. If a Palo Alto station is closed or understaffed because of a response to another emergency, equipment and personnel from the nearest Menlo Park station can be used, he said.

The agreements will not cost the departments additional money, he said.

The multiple responses could help cover any personnel or equipment deficits, Schapelhouman said.

He is also seeking an automatic-aid agreement with Fremont Fire to cover parts of East Palo Alto beyond Bay Road to the Dumbarton Bridge. That agreement will come before the Fremont City Council in September.

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