The Menlo Park Fire Protection District board moved forward with a plan for an emergency notification system and agreed to ratify a Joint Powers Authority agreement May 14, but there was disagreement behind both those decisions.
The notification system would place devices on fire district property and perhaps other locations that would broadcast messages for 850 meters, about half a mile, in all directions to alert residents about earthquakes, fires and floods.
A mobile notification device is housed in a trailer that has been tested at various locations. It responds well when there is a clear broadcast range, but the sound gets muffled when the device is behind trees or other obstructions, according to Division Chief Jim Stevens.
The district would like to install eight units as a first step, but that number will cover only a portion of the district's area.
The district was quoted a price of $818,000 for mounting of the systems at all fire stations and full integration with the United States Geological Survey Shake Alert System.
"The best idea is to find the best locations," said board President Virginia Chang Kiraly. "We now have eight locations that are within the fire district's authority, so we can put them there. "
Board Member Chuck Bernstein was especially adamant that the system be implemented as quickly as possible, saying that early warning is vital to the safety of the community.
"We have to put these things where everyone in the district will be alerted," he said. "We need twice or three times as many to alert people properly."
Member Rob Silano was not convinced, arguing that such a system has limited value if it's not used in coordination with law enforcement agencies.
A motion to allow Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman to move forward with developing the system passed 3-2 with member Jim McLaughlin joining Silano in voting no.
Joint Powers Authority
Bernstein continued to advocate for pulling out of the JPA, which covers emergency service agreements between all the fire departments and fire districts in San Mateo County, and governs cooperation in providing services.
Bernstein argued that the JPA arbitrarily limits what lifesaving devices the district can carry on its trucks, inhibits establishing mutual aid agreements with neighboring Palo Alto and other communities, and requires the district to provide more services to other San Mateo County agencies than it gets in return, among other concerns.
"The whole deal is absurd," he said. "I can't believe we're even considering signing it."
Silano said that the system established by the JPA would collapse if individual members left.
"We're part of the whole system and like a house of cards, if you pull out the support, the whole thing collapses," he said. "It's the best deal we can get right now."
The board approved continuing in the JPA by a 4-1 vote, with Bernstein opposed.
In reference to a proposal to add three more battalion chiefs, Bernstein questioned the need to hire more personnel, saying that the district is already top-heavy with bureaucracy.
Schapelhouman said the district should be a little overstaffed, calling attention to the need to avoid paying extra to put workers on overtime.
He cited the frequency of firefighters being out on workers compensation because of injuries and from deployments to fight fires in other areas of the state, as well as pending retirements.
"It's an overstaffing model versus an actual model," Schapelhouman said. "If you have an actual model, the overtime is going to go up."
The board also discussed the importance of receiving impact fees to compensate for new development, with Facebook's planned new campus as the lead example.
"We shouldn't be waiting until the end on these projects (to negotiate for fees)," Bernstein said.
Schapelhouman said that it is hard to nail down how much Facebook is going to spend on projects until they evolve beyond a certain point, since the company is always changing its plans.
Sometimes cities can exclude fire districts from the fee-negotiating process, Chang Kiraly said.
"Menlo Park could have been a better partner," she said. "Everyone could improve on building stronger partnerships."