In a joint meeting held March 5, the Menlo Park City Council and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board discussed how the district and city can work together to improve emergency vehicle response times and community responses to large-scale emergencies.
Relations between the two agencies haven't always been so agreeable. Tensions escalated around October 2016 when the city refused to sell land near the Belle Haven fire station to the fire district.
And in adjacent Atherton, town officials began to discuss withdrawing from the fire district after it became evident that residents pay far more per capita for fire services than residents in the other jurisdictions the fire district covers, since the district is funded with property taxes. In January, officials from the town and the fire district agreed to form a subcommittee to discuss ways to resolve the issue.
Seconds count when it comes to emergency response, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman explained at the meeting. That's partly why the fire district has expressed some degree of frustration when the city adds speed bumps, humps, chicanes, and bulb-outs to slow traffic.
Those barriers slow and can damage firetrucks and ambulances in emergencies, Schapelhouman said. They also prevent other vehicles caught in traffic from pulling over to make way for emergency response vehicles to pass by.
Schapelhouman noted that first responders are supposed to slow down to cautiously cross speed bumps and protect the equipment, but that doesn't always happen.
"Put yourself in their position – you hear we have a working fire, or a kid not breathing. They're not slowing," he said.
"Nobody's ever said, 'We're so impressed you showed up so fast,'" Schapelhouman said. "When you're the person waiting for help, it seems like a long time. I'm not only the fire chief, I'm a customer. I know what it looks like to be on a gurney, to have those bumps (while) you've got a broken neck, and they're worried about the outcome."
While the fire district retains "acceptable" response times, Schapelhouman said, in a little over 5 percent of emergencies that involve multiple first-response units, it takes 11 minutes or more for all units to arrive at the scene.
A YouTube video from a fire district dashcam recorder showed that first responders had to drive on the opposite side of the road to gain access to the Dumbarton Bridge in a 2015 incident.
The fire district identified 42 streets in Menlo Park as "primary routes" that its emergency vehicles rely on. Beyond that, traffic outside the fire district's territory in neighboring jurisdictions like Palo Alto, Redwood City and Fremont also plays into the district's ability to quickly respond to emergencies.
For those 42 primary streets, Schapelhouman said, it's the district's wish that all barriers and impediments be removed and no obstacles be added.
"If you don't see a cutout in a speed bump table, it was essentially installed without our blessing," Schapelhouman said, noting that nearly all the traffic obstacles in Belle Haven were installed without accommodations for fire equipment.
The council and fire board agreed to more actively pursue opportunities to promote communitywide emergency preparedness.
Not everyone has the time or willingness to take classes to be part of CERT, the community emergency response team, Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller said.
Schapelhouman pointed to shorter programs that can be offered widely -- such as a "stop the bleed" class recently taught by an emergency medical services coordinator at Menlo-Atherton High School -- that are simpler than a first-aid class and teach people how to stop major bleeding.
Fire district board member Chuck Bernstein, a CERT instructor, said that better publicity for classes might help attract trainees. Some classes he teaches have only two or three participants, he said.
The fire district has also acquired a long-range speaker system that can be used during emergencies to provide comprehensive verbal directions covering an area of about 1 square mile. While mobile emergency alerts have become more widespread, Schapelhouman said, not all people have their phone with them at all times, especially when they sleep.
The device has been tested on Walsh Road in Atherton, and the Menlo Park council expressed interest in a demonstration. Fire district officials also want to place these speakers at municipal facilities around the district.
Being so close to Stanford Hospital and a number of biotech companies, the area could also face a potential pathogen-based risk, Mueller said. Having a tool to give people verbal warnings could help in such an emergency, he said.
The district is requesting permission from the state to pair this speaker system with a "ShakeAlert," a mass notification system for early earthquake warnings. If it does get permission, Mueller suggested, the city and the fire district could consider a pilot program to test the concept.
The council and fire district agreed to have their liaisons meet to discuss the possibility of retrofitting existing speed bumps and other barriers to make them more firetruck-friendly, and setting up a demo for the loudspeakers; and to go over community emergency response training plans.