Menlo Park fire board meeting gets contentious


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.

More chiefs

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."

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2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 17, 2019 at 2:41 pm

Bernstein said "JPA arbitrarily limits what lifesaving devices the district can carry on its trucks..."
What are those lifesaving devices? How important are they? How often are the needed? Have they saved lives and eased suffering/

13 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 17, 2019 at 3:42 pm

Menlo Fire should not be in the alerting business. The City of Menlo Park has its own system and so does the Town of Atherton; San Mateo County has a countywide system (SMC Alert). Why does the FD think it has the space and personnel to get involved with alerting.

And what are they going to alert that the other systems don't already do.

The money could be better used elsewhere.

3 people like this
Posted by sjtaffee
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 17, 2019 at 4:23 pm

sjtaffee is a registered user.

Okay, so we install the siren / loudspeaker alerting system at the firestations because they represent easy to acces locations, test them, and then determine that only 1/2 the city can here them. So we dish out even more money to put them in more places?

It seems to me a more prudent course is to hire an engineering firm to provide us with their best estimate of the optimal acoustic locations and types of speakers to be deployed. Sirens can blast away and nead only be heard to know to take cover, but a PS system that is prpviding any sort of verbal directions is something really different.

Many communities use mobile epeaker systems on trucks to go directly to the neighborhoods that need the information. While these are often on firetrucks, they can easily be mounted on less critical equipment. No need to have a million dollar truck with a gigantic boom box.

The audio, mass alert system while something of a throwback to the 40's is a nice to have when telephone and wireless communications are down. However, we still have broadcast radio and television. While fewer homes may have TV antennas, there is a return to their use among some consumers and all cars have AM/FM radios. Still, the digital media players are ubiquitous and useless if the ISPs are down.

I do not feel the sense of urgency that some might about audio alert systems, at least not for the entire MPFPD. ?High wooded areas (like West Menlo / Atherton) that are at risk for fire or flash flood already have a siren system. Schools, hopspitals, nursing homes and major busniesses will no doubt be early adopters of the USGS earthquake warning systems, as will savvy smartphone users.

At nearly $1M I'd hope to see a breakdown on the additional benefit, an analysis of locations, fixed versus mobile (including drone-based audio notification systems) and other technologies. Heck, you might even be able to put a one-way emergency radio in every home in the MPFPD for less.

steve taffee

4 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 17, 2019 at 6:00 pm

Problem with sending vehicles out to roam the streets with a speaker system is that the alerts would be too late for earthquake warning and probably for other imminent life threatening catastrophes.

3 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 20, 2019 at 7:17 pm

The district will almost spend a million dollars on a system that is not coordinated to other fire or police agencies in San Mateo County and surrounding counties...
Money to burn by the fire district.....

It’s funny and sad that the 2 fire board that have the public safety experience voted against it...

Bernstein is right, too many chiefs and no Indians.... very very management top heavy....

5 people like this
Posted by Jenson
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 20, 2019 at 11:36 pm

Isn’t USGS moving from Menlo Park in the near future. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to hook up with the USGS alert system if they are leaving Menlo Park.

3 more battalion chiefs is an absolutely ridiculous idea. Couldn’t they spend the money on something useful like a sattalite station over near 101 so trucks can reach accidents in a more timely manner instead of trying to navigate the traffic on willow rd during peak hours

7 people like this
Posted by just asking
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on May 21, 2019 at 1:14 pm

@Bob and @Jenson:
The problem is that the Fire District is so awash in taxpayer money that they can "afford" pretty much anything they want to do. Hire three more battalion chiefs? No problem (remember--that means salary PLUS the ridiculous pensions they receive). Alert system for a million bucks? No problem. Put it in, see if it works, and if it doesn't, so what----they have PLENTY of taxpayer money to burn.

The issue should not be "can they afford it?" Because they can afford pretty much anything. The issue should be "does it make sense, is it necessary, will it keep people safer, will it actually work, do we actually need it?"

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