Menlo fire board rejects planned limited disaster communication system rollout | News | Almanac Online |


Menlo fire board rejects planned limited disaster communication system rollout

In order for all area residents to have important local information on the coronavirus health emergency, has lifted its pay meter and is providing unlimited access to its website. We need your support to continue our important work. Please join your neighbors and become a subscribing member today.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District board voted not to move ahead with an audio mass alert system for earthquakes, fires, floods and other natural disasters on Aug. 20 because of a disagreement about how the program should be implemented.

By a 2-2 vote, with board member Rob Silano absent, the board rejected the plan to spend $135,000 to install an LRAD, or long-range acoustical device, on an existing 100-foot-high pole at Station 2 in East Palo Alto.

When mounted on a high pole above the tree line, the system can broadcast an alert message for about a mile in every direction, giving instructions about where to go and what to do when an emergency hits.

The East Palo Alto installation was intended by fire district management to be a pilot program that could be expanded later, with the goal of installing as many as 40 to 50 devices throughout the district.

In the event of an earthquake, the LRAD system could be activated by the district's existing Shake Alert earthquake early warning system, according to the staff report on the program.

However, board members Chuck Bernstein and Jim McLaughlin found fault with what they said is a piecemeal implementation of the program at Station 2 without a long-term plan for a districtwide system.

Bernstein said he thinks the district needs a plan to roll out the LRAD system throughout its entire coverage area before installing the device in East Palo Alto.

"This is the most important thing that we can do for our community, and I don't think it's ready for prime time," Bernstein said. "We need a plan to add more stations that happens on a certain timetable and a budget. When is that plan going to be ready? We don't know."

The district has set aside $250,000 toward researching and possibly installing an LRAD system, according to Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. He said on Aug. 23 that he would prefer that the district purchase the device for Station 2 because he doesn't know if or when enough money will be available to roll it out throughout the district.

Silano, who has worked for the federal Department of Homeland Security, and McLaughlin, a former California Highway Patrol official, have expressed other reservations about the district's approach to LRAD, saying that it lacks coordination with other agencies, including law enforcement.

"This is a huge investment in a system that is not part of an integrated whole," McLaughlin said.

Board President Virginia Chang-Kiraly and Vice President Robert Jones, who represents East Palo Alto, disagreed.

Chang-Kiraly called East Palo Alto "a vulnerable city that needs protection right now" because its location near San Francisco Bay makes it more vulnerable to damage in an earthquake than other parts of the district.

"We will never have 100% protection and, over time, (Bernstein's) questions will be resolved," Chang-Kiraly said. "The longer we delay, the worse things will be."

Jones said he thinks the district needs to move ahead with LRAD in East Palo Alto immediately.

"This is right for East Palo Alto right now," Jones said. "In a disaster, people are going to be trying to find shelter, and if we're unprepared, that will be the tragedy."

Deputy fire chief

The board rejected, also by a 2-2 vote, a staff recommendation to hire a search agency to find a deputy fire chief from outside the district before considering other strategies. Bernstein and McLaughlin cast the dissenting votes.

Deputy Chief Don Long will be retiring on Sept. 1, and Division Chief Jim Stevens will be taking over his job while continuing in his current role until he also retires at the end of the year, Schapelhouman said. Long joined the district four years ago after transferring from a fire district in Merced, while Stevens has spent his entire career with the Menlo fire district starting in 1982.

Bernstein suggested that the board meet in closed session at a future date and go over the qualifications of current employees to find an internal candidate for deputy chief, who could also be groomed to take over for Schapelhouman when he eventually retires. Schapelhouman has two years left on his contract.

"I'm opposed to executive recruiters," Bernstein said. "People who have worked for us are going to be frustrated if they don't see a way to be promoted."

In other action

Staff also reported that the district received a high rating for its fire safety inspection program in a recent report from the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury.

In the report, the district was identified as one of six out of 10 San Mateo County fire districts that have written policies and procedures to carry out mandated annual inspections. Fire officials are required to inspect all public and private schools, hotels and motels, and apartments and condominiums, according to the report.

The grand jury also judged the district's inspection policy as one of the two "most comprehensive" by defining the buildings to be inspected, procedures to be followed, and inspection fees.

It was also named as one of three districts that conducted inspections of more than 90% of buildings that it was required to inspect between 2015 and 2018.

Fire agency inspection programs are coming under intense scrutiny in the Bay Area since the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland in December 2016 that killed 36 people.

In that case, the Oakland Fire Department had no record of the Ghost Ship property and, as a result, the property was never formally inspected, according to the grand jury report.

In addition, city and county officials were aware of the warehouse and the fact that it was being used as a live/work space, but did not take action that could have prevented the disaster, although a variety of fire and building code violations existed in the warehouse, the report said.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


5 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 27, 2019 at 1:03 pm

Thank goodness for Bernstein and McLaughlin for not being rubber stamps. Not coordinating with law enforcement and other agencies is a recipe for confusion and potentially making a bad situation worse.

4 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 27, 2019 at 1:21 pm

Great job on the part of 2 fire board members:

Vote against an alert system that is not coordinated with any other system(s)

Vote against hiring a headhunter, not looking at current employees in the district.

The chief should know better!!!!!!

18 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 28, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

MPFPD has always been one of the most innovative fire agencies in the nation.

MPFPD led the way to San Mateo County dispatch consolidation and did not wait until everybody else saw the wisdom of that innovation. Today every fire agency in the County uses the consolidated dispatch system that evolved from that innovation.

MPFPD led the way in requiring CalTans to install access doors along 101 over the entire length of the Fire District. MPFPD did not wait until such doors were the state-wide standard.

MPFPD led the way in being one of only two FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces that is not based on a a large urban fire department.

MPFPD led the way in the use of drones and was one of the first fire agencies to receive FAA operating approval for its use of those drones. MPFPD did not wait until everyone agreed on how fire agencies should use this new technology.

Innovation by definition requires moving before everyone else has decided to implement a new procedure or technology.

Silicon Valley has been a great success because organizations were willing to innovate.

It would be a disservice to the citizens of the Fire District if the Fire Board losses the wisdom and willingness to continue its long history of innovation.

8 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 28, 2019 at 7:58 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Bernstein said he thinks the district needs a plan to roll out the LRAD system throughout its entire coverage area before installing the device in East Palo Alto."

East Palo Alto has the greatest unmet emergency notification need of any portion of the Fire District. There is a lower level of internet access and a lower level of cell phone ownership. It is stupid, if not criminal, to hold the emergency notification needs of East Palo Alto hostage to an idealized District wide policy.

6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 30, 2019 at 5:22 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It is interesting to note that the Fire District has sponsored and supported the Walsh Road warning siren in Atherton for years without anybody including Bernstein complaining about the fact that it was not part of a District wide alert system.

One standard for Atherton and another for East Palo Alto? Such hypocrisy.

1 person likes this
Posted by W
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 30, 2019 at 8:25 am

1950s technology in 2019. Everyone has a phone today. And if you don’t you’re standing next to someone who does.

5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 30, 2019 at 8:38 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" Everyone has a phone today"

Then why did so many people die in the Paradise fire because they did not receive phone alerts?

And why are so few people in San Mateo County even signed up for phone alerts?

And what happens when the cell towers go down?

Why does Walsh Road have a siren alert system?

The fact is that phone alerts simply do not work.

We need to explore ALL methods of emergency notification and putting an LRAD at Station 2 provides both immediate value and a learning opportunity.

If the Fire District adopts Bernstein's model of perpetual analysis and stops innovating we are doomed to live in the past.

2 people like this
Posted by FirstResponder
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Aug 31, 2019 at 8:21 am

W is right. Everybody in the Bay Area has a phone or is in direct contact with someone who does. The simple fact is that people are apathetic. They don’t heed warnings. You could have sirens on every corner and there would still be a large contingents that would ignore them until it was too late. That’s why the people of paradise died. Simple apathy. It’s as old as humans. Just wait and see how many idiots this weekend die from Hurricane Dorian because they didn’t listen.

Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 8, 2019 at 6:18 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The headline is wrong - the Board did NOT reject the LRAD installation at Station 2.

The vote was 2-2 and when it comes back to the Board, after strong community support, I predict the Board will vote to approve this life saving service to the residents in EPA as being comparable to the Atherton centric Walsh Road siren system.

One size does not fit all and wisdom and equity demand that the residents of East palo Alto receive as much consideration as do the residents of Atherton.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 10, 2019 at 9:06 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

So now that you have seen how vulnerable cell phone alert systems are to a power outage do you understand why a stand alone audible alert system located at a fire station that has emergency generator makes so much sense?

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 29, 2019 at 11:34 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"California’s recent power shut-offs, meant to reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic fires, have had an unwelcome side effect. The blackouts have also cut power to many cellphone towers, blocking the main communications source for many in harm’s way."

Web Link

This is why stand alone audible alert systems located at fire stations that have standby power are CRITICAL warning systems.

In most disasters cell phones and cell phone alerts simply will NOT work.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


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

Stay up to date on local coronavirus coverage with our daily news digest email.

'A devastating impact:' The coronavirus claims Clarke's Charcoal Broiler, Mountain View's oldest operating restaurant
By Elena Kadvany | 22 comments | 7,860 views

The first few seconds after awakening; before I remember the virus
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 3,276 views

Can you stay healthy without making more trash?
By Sherry Listgarten | 6 comments | 2,664 views

Think about helping others in our coronavirus-affected area
By Diana Diamond | 6 comments | 2,484 views

Coronavirus Food Safety Update + Insider Tips
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 695 views



The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

View Details