Faced with the complexity of the issue, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District has asked for more time to evaluate a proposal for the first new countywide joint powers authority operating agreement in 10 years.
The Emergency Medical Services JPA includes every fire agency in the county.
The agreement includes three parts: An emergency medical services agreement, a dispatch agreement and an agreement on automatic aid, which requires fire departments and districts to go into neighboring jurisdictions when help is needed, according to Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman.
The extra time, if granted, could require the 10 San Mateo County fire agencies to extend the deadline by which the Menlo Park fire district could sign or not sign the new contract. The current contract expires June 30.
The EMS JPA agreement is on the agenda for discussion at the board's meeting on Tuesday, April 16.
The Menlo Park fire district is one of the wealthier districts in the county that offers a full array of services, so fire board members are concerned that the district's tax money could be used to subsidize other fire districts that may be consolidating or cutting back, according to Schapelhouman.
The most vocal of the five fire board members on the issue is Chuck Bernstein, who would like the district to get out of the JPA entirely. He argues that Menlo Park responds to twice as many calls in neighboring communities than it receives in aid.
"There are greater risks for the residents of the District, even as they shoulder
the costs of providing services to agencies that have not maintained their level of effort," Bernstein wrote in a memo to the board. "This is totally unacceptable. A new cooperative agreement must eliminate this outcome."
Bernstein would like the district to create automatic aid agreements with other agencies of its choice both inside and outside the county, and create reimbursement arrangements when the level of mutual aid is unbalanced, he said in the memo.
At the board's April 4 meeting, Schapelhouman said the agreement is working well overall. He said after the meeting that he also agrees officials should be looking at changes that can be made to realign things so they reflect current realities.
On the other hand, the fire chief thinks the district also has a moral obligation to the public to give service wherever it's needed.
He gave the example of Stanford Weekend Acres off Alpine Road, which is in the unincorporated area. Menlo Park's fire station is 1 mile away and it's 9 miles to the nearest San Mateo County station, he said.
"We wouldn't (refuse service there), and we're not going to," Schapelhouman said.
"We don't want to be an agency that says 'You don't subscribe to our service, so we'll let your house burn down.'"
Bernstein said that the Weekend Acres situation should be remedied by moving the property taxes earmarked for firefighting services there from the county coffers to the Menlo Park fire district or setting up an agreement where the district is reimbursed.
"We tried unsuccessfully to annex the area, but the county won't give up the taxes they pay for fire protection even though they don't provide fire protection," he said on April 8.
The district's grievances also include the JPA's makeup, according to fire board President Virginia Chang Kiraly. There are 22 voting members on the JPA board and 10 fire chiefs, a vestigial element that harkens back to when there were more agencies.
"Belmont, San Mateo and Foster City get three votes even though they only have one fire chief, while we also cover three cities and only have one vote," Schapelhouman said.
As for dispatch services, the fire chief thinks they are working well, adding that having the county dispatching first responders from one central location improves response times and reduces redundancy and confusion.
Bernstein, on the other hand, thinks the central dispatch system enables the current system of automatic aid.
There was a six-alarm fire in Redwood City in 2013 and all of Menlo Park's units were dispatched to fight it, leaving the service area unprotected, he said.
"We're not allowed to get help from Palo Alto because it's not in the JPA," he said.
"We should be able to negotiate an agreement with them."
The fire board on Tuesday is also scheduled to discuss a separate countywide ambulance contract that received only one bidder -- American Emergency Response (AMR). The county Board of Supervisors approved the ambulance contract at its meeting April 9.