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Together again: Atherton council, fire board meet on mutual issues

 

The Atherton City Council and the board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District are a bit like a dating couple who fight sometimes but believe at heart they can't get along without each other.

The two bodies appear to at least have a truce in the contentious spat that's been going on, quite often in public, since Atherton announced in September that it wants to do a cost-benefit analysis of the services the fire district provides in Atherton.

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, council members and fire district directors met jointly, the second such meeting since April 2015, to discuss issues of mutual interest.

Atherton Mayor Mike Lempres and fire board President Rob Silano even jointly co-chaired the meeting.

The meeting may have gone mostly smoothly because the issue that has caused the contention between the two bodies, the finances of the fire district, was off the table.

The discussion point Atherton seemed most interested in was the agreement the fire district has with San Mateo County and other agencies to provide emergency medical services, which are a large majority of the district's calls.

By state law, San Mateo County is responsible for providing emergency medical services to county residents. The county contracts with the American Medical Response (AMR) to transport patients to hospitals.

The county also contracts with a joint powers agency that includes the fire district and other county fire agencies and cities with fire departments to provide paramedic first-response services excluding patient transportation, John Odle, executive director of the joint powers agency, explained.

The fire district has represented Atherton, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto on the joint powers agency, the San Mateo County Pre-Hospital Emergency Services Group, since it was formed in 1998.

The agreement between the county and the JPA gives the fire district $50,000 a year for each of eight first-response units, totaling 24 paramedics. District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the district actually has 45 paramedics, plus nine more in training.

Atherton council member Rick DeGolia said he'd like to see the district's response time to medical emergencies in the different jurisdictions it covers reported each month, much as Atherton does for its response time to police calls.

Mr. DeGolia said the town had suggested the fire district might post a medical response unit in the new civic center to aid in faster medical responses on the east side of El Camino Real.

Chief Schapelhouman said the district's staff had looked at that issue and didn't think staging paramedics and equipment in the civic center would change response times.

"We don't have all the data we want to have, but we did look at that," he said. The district now has a contractor taking a closer look, he said.

There were a few contentious moments, including when council member Bill Widmer said not providing Atherton residents with information about response times and costs was "taxation without representation."

"You don't have taxation without representation," said Chief Schapelhouman. "You have a fire board" elected to represent Atherton residents, he said.

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