Menlo fire board rejects planned limited disaster communication system rollout | August 28, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - August 28, 2019

Menlo fire board rejects planned limited disaster communication system rollout

by Rick Radin

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.

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