Local police and fire service agencies never expected a potted begonia and thank-you card when their crews rushed to the Dumbarton Bridge to handle the car crash, or the man threatening to jump over the rail, or the thug speeding across in a stolen car.
But more than a year ago, stunned administrators in both the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and the Menlo Park Police Department started receiving something they expected even less: citations for driving through the toll plaza without paying while on an emergency call.
The citations were the result of the bridge authority's conversion in August 2007 to the computerized FasTrak fee-collection system, which uses cameras to monitor the FasTrak lanes emergency vehicles use when responding to calls. In putting the system in place, decision-makers neglected to consider the impact on emergency responders, according to Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.
"Computers replaced people, and common sense that had been in place for 81 years went out the window," he said in a written statement.
Chief Schapelhouman delivered his message recently in Sacramento to the state Assembly's Transportation Committee, which was considering a bill by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Riverside, to exempt emergency vehicles from paying bridge tolls anywhere in the state when making emergency calls. (The bill cleared that committee.)
Since the citations began coming in last year, both fire district and police department staffs have spent many hours and endured numerous head-aches trying to get the tickets dismissed, officials from both agencies say.
"It's time-consuming and, quite honestly, very frustrating and ridiculous," Chief Schapelhouman said in an interview.
The bill now making its way through the process in Sacramento -- AB 254 -- cleared the Appropriations Committee with no opposition last week, and is set to go to the Assembly floor within a week or two, said an aide to Assemblyman Jeffries.
Chief Schapelhouman said he's been asked to testify again in June when the Senate hears the bill. In his testimony before the Assembly, he noted that the fire agency provides emergency response services on the Dumbarton at no charge to Caltrans, which oversees the bridge.
At this point, ACS Government Solutions, the private company that operates FasTrak, requires the public agencies receiving citations to submit evidence that their vehicles were responding to an emergency, he said. "I believe that the burden has clearly been inappropriately placed" on the emergency services agencies, he said in his testimony before the Assembly.
"Please stop this madness and bring common sense back to a system that, statewide, should be offering an exemption to emergency responders for legitimate emergencies on tolls and bridges," he concluded.
Cmdr. Lacy Burt of the Menlo Park Police Department said she and her colleagues are "definitely on board with the effort" to exempt emergency responders from tolls.
Too often, she noted, staff has spent too much precious time trying to reach a person with authority at ACS Government Solutions, and once they did, have been told that the tickets would be forgiven -- only to have the "overdue bills" sent to collections.
Tickets are $29 each; when they're not paid, the penalty boosts the cost to $74, she said. "It's rather frustrating," she said. "We've sent numerous (messages) to them, saying, 'Hey, can we come to the table and work out some sort of deal here? This is public safety. ... Can we meet in the middle?'"
Cmdr. Burt noted that Menlo Park police officers don't patrol the bridge, and respond to the span "only when there's an emergency."