Menlo fire district warns of 'catastrophic consequences' from mobility issues

Letters to local jurisdictions don't include data to back up warnings

Only unincorporated San Mateo County areas saw an increase in response times by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District between 2014 and 2016, according to this 2017 fire district report. (Courtesy Menlo Park Fire Protection District)

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.


Sign up for Almanac Express to get news updates. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Or show your support for local journalism by subscribing.


17 people like this
Posted by It's True
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 13, 2018 at 5:00 pm

The detailed statistics might be interesting, but I think anyone who has driven in this area for the past decade would testify to the increased congestion. It is obvious on its face.

Placing this issue back on the municipalities and the County is appropriate. They issue the permits for the high density housing along El Camino Real, hotels at Marsh and 101, as well as large corporations which bring in throngs of commuters (in addition to the busses).

Signal pre-emption is a must, but only a short term fix. It is a cost that should be borne by the businesses and commuters causing the congestion. The Fire District is sitting on a pile of cash and they should use those ample funds to invest in the infrastructure that would allow them to deliver services in a timely manner.

11 people like this
Posted by jim lewis
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Jun 13, 2018 at 6:15 pm

jim lewis is a registered user.

The issue is also one of liability. By placing the issue before each of the cities, places the blame, risks and potential negligence squarely where it belongs. Each city has the duty to provide a safe way for the 1- Police, 2- Fire, 3- Ambulance and 4- other public safety and emergency vehicles to get to where they need to go. Growth may be important for the community, but at what price?

18 people like this
Posted by Jenson
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 13, 2018 at 7:52 pm

Didn’t the fire district just improve the fire station on the east side of 101. Can’t that station take care of problems in those areas that the Middlefield station has to travel to using willow rd? How many of those calls that the Middlefield Road station responds to using Willow Road are traffic issues on 101? . I think there needs to be an independent study as to what calls are actually helping Menlo residents and how many of those calls can be handled by the east of 101 station. Maybe that station is where improvements need to be made to help with time responses
We need more information as to what the Middlefield Road station responds to before there is any talk of doing something to Willow road. Peter carpenter is not the person to tell us the numbers since he is long been an advocate of tearing up Willow road. An independent study is the only way to proceed.. widening Willow road will only increase traffic and congestion and do nothing to improve times. Maybe another fire station needs to be built and strategically placed to better serve its residents. Sure be easier then trying to “fix” Willow road

17 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jun 13, 2018 at 9:44 pm

Clearly none of the writers has ever waited for the FD while watching flames eat their house -- or has been a patient in the back of an ambulance stuck in traffic (as I have).

It's quite a shock to see that, in the wealthiest community in the U.S., the FD & PD are perceived as being too expensive.

8 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 13, 2018 at 10:24 pm

While I value the concern, I think labeling it as "catastrophic consequences" may be a little melodramatic. Additionally, this is not unique to our area. All the concerns that Menlo Fire identified are common through San Mateo County, the Peninsula, and pretty much the Bay Area.

I applaud the FD for addressing this issue. Since Menlo Fire participates with other county fire agencies in automatic aid which includes boundary drops (e.g. Redwood Fire could respond into Atherton and Menlo Park) maybe this should be discussed among all agencies. They could even go so far as to explore alternative delivery options versus sending an engine to most calls.

4 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Jun 14, 2018 at 1:10 am

Kevin is a registered user.

Drones are being used very effectively to triage fires ahead of the arrival of fire captains, and in spite of traffic jams. Time for our fire department to enter the 21st century.

35 people like this
Posted by Schapelhouman Shakedown
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 14, 2018 at 7:06 am

With the Fire District, it is ALWAYS "someone else's fault". How about Harold + Chuck take responsibility for adjusting infrastructure and personnel? The District's own stats show that medical calls continue to dominate over conflagrations, but they still send out ladder trucks and full crews when someone's got heart palpitations. How about adding smaller stations at more locations in the city, staffed by smaller crews running ambulances? That would have been a better use of funds than buying that Atherton house next to the existing station. Do your job, Fire District!

19 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 14, 2018 at 7:31 am

Brian is a registered user.

It almost seems like this data is from the previous MPFPD president and not the new one as their alarmist claims are not supported by the data the provided. I would hardly claim that the data indicates any "catastrophic consequences" in the near future, that said this is an issue that must be addressed and is not the responsibility of only the cities. The MPFPD is flush with our money and have been spending it freely, what about opening some satellite stations that would be staffed during the "waking hours" with one engine and would be primarily for medical calls, which seems to be the primary type of call they are responding to. They would have a faster response time and can triage the situation and deliver immediate care.

7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 14, 2018 at 8:49 am

Anyone who has driven in traffic on Willow and Marsh during commute times—— 8:00am to 10:00am: 3:30pm to 8:00pm aware of the problems....Come on, we re not stupid people. Traffic will not stop. Fire District cannot enforce traffic laws.... how about building fire facilities that will provide better response times.. or place equipment on a temporary basis during those commute times.

Problem solved:
The county and cities of the fire district need to take a lot of the responsibility too.

23 people like this
Posted by Enough
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 14, 2018 at 9:16 am

How about curtailing development?
If we can't take care of the current population, increasing the population will lead to catastrophe.

11 people like this
Posted by Just the Facts
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jun 14, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Just the Facts is a registered user.

"Drones are being used very effectively to triage fires ahead of the arrival of fire captains, and in spite of traffic jams. Time for our fire department to enter the 21st century."

A drone never put out a fire, or performed CPR. I want fire units focused on safely arriving at the emergency scene, rather than launching and monitoring drones. Remember, most fire responses are to medical related issues and most of those are out of the view of a drone.

Drones may have value in assessing long term, major events, but little if any value for most fire responses. Citizens on the scene with cell phones provide a tremendous amount of information before units arrive. Perhaps developing a system where citizens on scene can provide live video feeds to responding units would be more efficient and effective.

5 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Jun 14, 2018 at 1:06 pm

Kevin is a registered user.

@Just the facts,
I'm trying to offer up some solutions rather than just continue to whinge about the admittedly bad traffic and put together a "paper trail" of why the FD was delayed. Drones make sense where there's a fire to be assessed. There's often a significant amount of time assessing a fire before major suppression work - an early arriving drone could get the time clock started minutes earlier. Motorcycle-based EMT teams could start CPR or early triage started much earlier. But that would require change...

32 people like this
Posted by Pot Meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 14, 2018 at 3:31 pm

Agree with everything that Jenson, Brian, Bob and Shakedown said.

There is no reason that the district needs to roll an engine and/or a ladder truck need to respond to purely medical emergency.

If the response times from the Fair Oaks, Chilco, and East Palo Alto stations are too long, then maybe the district should allocate more resources to those stations instead of buying single family residences in Atherton and West Menlo.

This is an important issue and it is disappointing that the district is not looking for solutions other than "build wider roads and don't let cars drive on them."

9 people like this
Posted by Schapelhouman Shakedown
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 15, 2018 at 7:24 am

By the way, this PR effort by the district is doomed if they keep Chuck Bernstein as the face of it. That guy is like the Ted Cruz of Menlo Park- no one likes him. That's a problem when you've got a shaky grasp on the facts and are trying to persuade!

7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 15, 2018 at 8:23 am


How right you are!

12 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jun 16, 2018 at 8:54 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Like at all fire departments, only a tiny fraction of calls are for fires or anything requiring half-million to million-dollar hulking fire engines and trucks.

It's a costly and inefficient American blind spot that fire departments everywhere are still trying to maneuver these huge, lumbering and very costly-to-operate FIRE-FIGHTING apparatus through traffic and smaller city streets to MEDICAL calls.

Note that all across Europe, you will typically see paramedics arrive on the scene of medical calls and even most car crashes in smaller, cheaper and more nimble vans, sedans or even motorcycles.

Image gallery of German car crash scenes ("Unfall") with paramedics ("Notarzt") here (note how few show fire trucks ... typical for Europe): Web Link

For fastest paramedic response through heavy congestion, specially-equipped motorcycles ("Motorrad") are even used in some areas: Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by James Madison
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 16, 2018 at 7:22 pm

Stanford should be included among those to whom the Fire District's warning letter should be sent, as loading the campus in the morning and unloading it in the afternoon probably contributes more to the congestion than any other single employer.

10 people like this
Posted by It's True
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 17, 2018 at 1:43 pm

Carpenter said the budget is "responding to the increased demands on the district." "The number of people that we serve, particularly the daytime population, the number of square footage of buildings, etc. these things are all growing," Carpenter said. "The other piece is the innovation piece. We've made a commitment to innovation and doing things differently."

That was May 30, an eternity ago. Hmm, what could the FD do to innovate and do differently to mitigate the impact of traffic?

+ Upgrade all traffic lights for pre-emption throughout the district (disruptive technology).
+ Re-think the apparatus it sends to routine medical responses (motorcycles, Tesla SUV).
+ Designate standby locations for fire personnel during congested time periods (for example, stage at Willow and 101?)
+ Build additional facilities (rather than purchase adjacent houses and lots) in new locations to improve response times based on known, recurrent congestion

Drones are nice and certainly they augment the mission. In light of the crisis outlined in this article, it would make sense to invest in technology, equipment, facilities, personnel, and processes that meaningfully impact response times.

What ideas does the Fire Board have? I think a good, competitive election would probably bring them out as the candidates announce what they plan to do differently.

6 people like this
Posted by where is transit?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 18, 2018 at 12:15 pm

Time to address the solutions to less congestion: fund public transit options to get people out of cars, build safe and continuous pathways for bikes and walking, require major employers to provide high occupancy transportation options to their employees, implement trip caps with heavy fines, and slow down development until solutions are in place.

3 people like this
Posted by It's True
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 18, 2018 at 1:16 pm

@where is transit

Are you suggesting the FD use its ample surplus to fund public transit in order to get their fire engines through congested traffic. That is certainly thinking out of the box!

Your government is already implementing high density housing near public transit, CalTrain. A drive up El Camino Real reveals the abundance of new apartment buildings. Yet, all of these people have cars and don't rely on transit. Even if transit were FREE, they would still get in their cars. The bus doesn't run to Costco and I assure you all of these people end up there on the weekend -- with their cars.

I think at some point society reaches an equilibrium. Some segment of the population will be willing to tolerate the inconvenience of congestion and housing costs because they are able to earn enough money to make it worth their while. Others will choose to move out of the area because they either made their money or they value the better quality of life one can find outside of the peninsula and California.

That said, the government should ensure a minimum level of public safety, including reasonable response times to emergencies. With the FD sitting on a mountain of cash, it is reasonable to expect they use that accumulation of OUR money to mitigate the increased response times -- a 'catastrophic' problem.

2 people like this
Posted by Steve_J
a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2018 at 2:30 pm

Steve_J is a registered user.

I thought the fire department was going to put the paramedics on motorcycles so they could respond faster? Didn't Peter Carpenter donate some money for this?? What happened?

1 person likes this
Posted by MERTs fan
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 19, 2018 at 8:25 pm

Motorcycle Emergency Respose Team capability does sound like an intriguing option to assure reasonable medical response times for initial treatment during congested periods: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Full response not necessary
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 20, 2018 at 9:45 am

Part of the problem may be the 'full-response' clause of the FD union contracts, wherein trucks and ambulances respond for every call, no matter the issue. Oftentimes one seems the fire coming to an emergence, and quickly move on.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Let's Talk Internships
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 879 views

Couples: Sex and Connection (Chicken or Egg?)
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 685 views

Zucchini Takeover
By Laura Stec | 1 comment | 627 views