Fire district faces challenges of development

Atherton Council and Menlo Park Fire Protection District meet jointly

Should Atherton residents care if fire trucks are getting caught in traffic on Menlo Park's Willow Road, on their way to ever-more-frequent emergency calls from East Palo Alto and Belle Haven?

According to Chief Harold Schapelhouman, of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, they should. He told those attending a joint meeting of the district's governing board and Atherton City Council on April 29 that if emergency vehicles become tied up in one part of the fire district, it could make it harder to respond quickly in other areas.

The fire district covers Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and parts of nearby unincorporated San Mateo County.

So far, the chief said, the fire district has managed to maintain good response times. However, he said, many things outside the district's control are affecting how quickly and effectively the district can respond to calls. He asked the town to consider how any town projects, such as traffic-calming measures or anything that narrows streets, could affect emergency response.

"The problem we have is not only how long it takes to respond, but once you get in there, how long it takes you to get back out," he said.

The chief also asked Atherton officials to urge Menlo Park and East Palo Alto to study the effects on emergency response of any development projects, both in terms of response time and in cost.

"We knew down the road bigger would come," the chief said about recent building in Menlo Park."Bigger is here." The question, is, he said, who should pay for any additional fire services? "Should the rest of the district's residents, through their tax dollars, absorb that?" he asked.

Impact fees

The district, he said, is studying charging impact fees for new development. Such fees will probably not include single family homes, he said, except, perhaps homes with basements. Basements pose dangerous and unique fire-fighting problems, he said.

"Going subsurface for a firefighter," the chief said, "that's a bad day." Underground fires can get very hot, and destroy the underpinning of a building, which can collapse on firefighters, he said.

The joint study session, which the chief said was the first since 2007, was held in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Jennings Pavilion. Officials from the town and the fire district talked about several other issues that affect both entities. One of those is the town's plan for a pedestrian-controlled stoplight on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue, near the district's only station inside Atherton.

Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the light could help fire trucks more easily turn onto or across El Camino. Board members asked to have the matter of possible district help with the costs of the light, including equipping it so firefighters may stop traffic, put on the agenda of their next meeting.

The town has also asked for fire district input when it designs an emergency operations center for its new civic center.

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