The Menlo Park Fire Protection District has sent letters to Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and San Mateo County asking for joint meetings of their governing boards to address "mobility" problems in the district that the letters warn "will have catastrophic consequences for those needing emergency services."
The letters, dated May 10, did not say what information the dire warnings were based on. The letters say the district is "now at a tipping point where delays in our response times during more than half the waking hours" of local residents and workers could bring catastrophe.
"Unfortunately, our ability to meet the required response times in certain parts of the District has deteriorated for a variety of reasons (roadway design, roadway widths, traffic control devices, traffic congestion), but with the most challenging being gridlock during commute hours," the letters signed by fire board President Chuck Bernstein say.
Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman did not respond to repeated requests from The Almanac over more than a week to provide the data the letters were based on.
In an email, Bernstein said that although he didn't have the reports on hand, the information could be found on the district's website.
The Almanac was able to find a report, produced for the fire board's Aug. 15, 2017, meeting by district staff, that includes a statistical analysis of emergency response times from 2014, 2015 and 2016. Bernstein confirmed it was the report he had referred to.
The report has not been updated with 2017 response times.
"The staff has placed more than 80 hours of time in research and documentation in preparation of this report," it says.
The report shows that response times in all but the unincorporated county areas covered by the fire district actually improved between 2014 and 2016. The times in the report are the times by which 90 percent of the vehicles being measured had responded.
In Atherton, response times dropped from 4 minutes, 56 seconds in 2014, to 4 minutes, 30 seconds in 2016.
In East Palo Alto, response times were 5 minutes, 51 seconds in 2014, and 5 minutes, 39 seconds in 2016.
In Menlo Park, response times were 6 minutes, 4 seconds in 2014, and 5 minutes, 55 seconds in 2016.
In the unincorporated areas response times increased from 6 minutes, 21 seconds in 2014, to 6 minutes, 40 seconds in 2016.
In 2015, the fire district adopted the goal of responding to at least 90 percent of calls in less than seven minutes from the time stations are contacted by the dispatcher.
The report also shows that overall, during commute time (6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) response times dropped slightly between 2014 and 2016, from 6 minutes, 53 seconds to 6 minutes, 51 seconds.
When broken down into responses from each station during commute hours, half the response times dropped while the others increased over that period.
Bernstein said he looked at the report differently, considering only the changes between 2015 and 2016, and was concerned by what he saw. Breaking down response times to the engines and truck at each station from 2015 to 2016, the report shows times improving for three engines and the truck and deteriorating for four engines and the district overall (from 6 minutes, 33 seconds in 2015, to 6 minutes, 51 seconds in 2016).
The report, Bernstein pointed out, also showed that the district was not meeting its target of responding in under seven minutes during commute times with vehicles from three stations: the engines from stations in East Palo Alto, Fair Oaks Avenue in unincorporated Menlo Park, and Chilco Street in Menlo Park.
"On average for all stations, we were under the 7:00 minute target, but only by nine seconds. In my opinion, that was cause for alarm," Berstein wrote in an email.
Bernstein said "the worsening problem has caused our firefighters to respond in riskier ways, cutting through streets that were not made for fire engines and going the wrong way on major arteries. Even if we are finding faster ways to get places, the fix will be only temporary because it is generally agreed that new construction is bring(ing) more cars onto the roads."
The letters he sent name specific roadways in each jurisdiction that are especially compromised. That information came from anecdotal information from firefighters, the board was told.
Bernstein said the 2017 report has some known flaws, including times when firefighters forgot to push a button noting they had arrived on the scene, and cases in which two sources gave two different times for arrival.
He said that in writing the letter he also relied on "the anecdotal experience of the firefighters who know, day to day, how long it is taking them and who frequently are forced to search for alternative routes."
Fire board director Peter Carpenter has long been asking that jurisdictions within the fire district be put on notice about problems with their roadways. "We need paper trails on this issue," he said in a Feb. 21, 2017, meeting.
"We've been telling Menlo Park for years (about problems on Willow Road)," he said. "We need to make sure that we put the ball in their court."
The letters also ask for consideration of "the installation of a district-wide alerting system to address disasters."
Mr. Bernstein said on June 17 that the fire district had heard from all the recipients of the letter except for San Mateo County.
He said Atherton plans to hold its usual annual meeting with the district in December, that East Palo Alto will hold a joint meeting with the fire board in September and that Menlo Park has responded it is too busy to meet.
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