A lawsuit brought against the Menlo Park Fire Protection District over a collision between a car and an emergency vehicle has been dismissed, according to San Mateo County Superior Court records. But it has led to changes in how emergency vehicles drive to a scene.
The suit, filed in August by Jose Cardosa and Feliciano Curup, the two people who were in the car, asked for compensation related to unspecified injuries, resulting from alleged negligence on the part of the defendants. But the suit was dismissed with prejudice (meaning it can't be refiled) six months later.
Juan Simon, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs, did not respond to requests for comment.
The collision occurred on Aug. 20, 2013, at the intersection of El Camino Real and Ravenswood Avenue at about 10:19 p.m., based on police and fire district records.
Battalion Chief James Stevens, responding to a shooting in East Palo Alto, was driving a 2008 Chevrolet Suburban with lights and sirens activated when he made a left turn on a red light onto Ravenswood Avenue, according to the records. The driver of the other car, a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta, reportedly heading north on El Camino Real at 35 miles per hour, was unable to stop before entering the intersection, and the two vehicles collided.
Mr. Stevens was cited for a failure to yield, although he could have been cited under section of the code "more favorable to emergency responders" that takes into account that he was responding with red lights and siren to a high-level emergency, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.
The chief said Mr. Stevens is a 32-year veteran with an exceptional driving record. Larger SUVs in the turn and first lanes blocked the battalion chief's view of the Jetta, and the crash occurred as Mr. Stevens crept into the second lane.
The Jetta's driver, who has not been identified as such in court records or by law enforcement, did not have a valid license at the time of the incident, according to the police.
"You can appreciate my frustration related to the outcomes here where lives were put at risk, our organization is being threatened with litigation, public property was damaged and one of my commanders, who has an exemplary driving record, missed a serious emergency incident where his job is to look out for the safety and well-being of our personnel who were responding to it," Chief Schapelhouman said.
Menlo Park Police Cmdr. Dave Bertini said the "failure to yield" citation for the battalion chief came after officers bounced around ideas of what would be most appropriate in light of the primary collision factors.
"No one was cited at the scene. When these things happen, we discuss it," he said, particularly since the police officer that responded to the scene hadn't gone through specialized accident investigation training. "We're very aware of all the sections that we could have used. The cause of the accident was really running the red light."
While section 21806 of California's vehicle code does require drivers to yield to emergency vehicles, he said, section 21807 states that someone behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle must still drive "with due regard for the safety of all persons and property."
The Jetta's unlicensed driver was not ticketed.
"We're under no obligation to cite anyone," Cmdr. Bertini said, noting that the Department of Motor Vehicles may have taken action on its own. "People think police respond to all accident scenes and cite people ... but it's discretionary."
According to Chief Schapelhouman, the district is implementing new procedures inspired by the collision. After consulting with the California Highway Patrol, he said, the new policy is that drivers must ensure each individual lane is clear first before proceeding into an intersection against a red light.
"I hope this minor change will help," the chief said, adding that when red lights are flashing and sirens sounding, seconds can make a difference.
The district is also thinking about putting dashboard cameras in its emergency vehicles. "Given our traffic challenges, I want to start documenting how difficult and dangerous it can be for our first responders," he said.
The fire district's board of directors will receive a study in May related to traffic issues and response times. With more vehicles hitting the road as new projects get built and the economy continues to improve, firefighters at times have found their response delayed by traffic congestion.
Chief Schapelhouman seemed frustrated that development planning, such as the zoning update underway for Menlo Park's M2 industrial zone, doesn't include an analysis of how emergency response will be affected.
"This seems to be a significant problem as these consultants present a landscape where suggestions and options related to transportation changes have little to do with the reality of the emergency first responders and the primary response routes that they rely on to adequately service the community," Chief Schapelhouman said.
"It's all about striking a balance between what is desired, needed, practical and a daily reality and necessity. I'm all for improvements and change, but they have to make sense."