By Jay Thorwaldson
On Deadline blog: Palo Alto police and fire operations face big changes -- to be definedUploaded: Feb 8, 2012
Some of the most sweeping changes in the long histories of the Palo Alto Police Department and Fire Department are beginning to take shape -- even though many are yet undefined.
That was the essence of what Dennis Burns, the interim chief of both departments, told City Council members at the Jan. 21 annual retreat of the council.
He repeated the message of nearly every police chief for the past three decades: That the existing police department is under-sized and inadequate to do an effective job in safeguarding the community -- particularly if a major earthquake damaged the structure and adjacent emergency-dispatch and Emergency Operations Center (in the "basement" of City Hall).
A "mobile command center" bus purchased recently with state and federal Homeland Security grants is good to have but is not a permanent replacement for a new building, Burns said.
A new "public safety building" has been proposed but was shelved by the City Council after the estimated cost for a 49,000-square-foot structure floated to about $80 million. But that figure included acquisition of a site on Park Boulevard just south of Oregon Expressway. If a city-owned site could be found it would be less expensive.
But the big barrier will be convincing city voters that a new building is essential to the future well-being of Palo Alto, either day-to-day or in emergencies. A survey showed that community support falls short of the two-thirds majority needed to approve bonds for such a project -- even though a majority of voters said they would support a bond measure.
Some of the changes being discussed are mandated by technology and the possibilities that opens to finding ways to improve operational effectiveness and efficiency -- and some may be simple economics.
For the jargon-challenged, "effectiveness" translates to the kind of job officers and firefighters do under the management structures of the departments. "Efficiency" translates to cost and budget, more important than ever in these post-recession days.
City Manager James Keene set the stage for Burns' comments. He cited a recent report from the "Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission," now known by its acronym, IBRC, pronounced "I-Brick." Seventeen commissioners spent months evaluating city infrastructure needs.
A copy of the report is available through a link on a council agenda: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=29935 . It's worth reading for anyone waiting to comment on (or attack) its recommendations.
The IBRC report was something of a Christmas present of civic goodies to the council and city administrators: it was dated Dec. 22. Unfunded goodies, however, with a total cost estimate approaching $400 million.
Relating to police and fire -- or "public safety" -- services, Keene said the IBRC recommendations "were generally founded in the status quo of the organizations. They didn't get into re-imagining different ways of providing the services."
Burns and others are now actively exercising their imaginations, where a public-safety building looms large, Burns indicated Jan. 21. Not too large, as some have charged. Perhaps just the right size?
An urgency framed the IBRC recommendation: "Build a new Public Safety Building (PSB) as soon as possible on a new site, incorporating the Police Department, the Fire Department administration, the Communications Center, the Emergency Operations Center, and the Office of Emergency Services.
"Public safety should be a top priority for any city, but that priority has been dangerously deferred in Palo Alto," the commissioners urged. "An initial action should be site acquisition, preferably the Park Avenue (or equivalent) site previously identified by the 2006 Task Force.
"The Commission reviewed rebuilding at the present site, splitting public safety into multiple facilities, and exploring further interagency collaborations. None of these compared favorably."
A new building "has literally been in the process for 27 years in the Police Department," Burns reminded the council, citing "dozens and dozens of (citizen) reports and staff reports." One of the more recent, prior to IBRC, was the Blue Ribbon Task Force of 2006, which recommended a 49,000-square-foot building -- about the same size as the San Mateo public-safety building to serve a city of about 93,000 persons.
Palo Alto's population is about the same, on average: It fluctuates from about 64,000 night-time residents up to more than 110,000 daytime occupants, with "significantly larger" numbers in hot economic times.
By contrast Palo Alto's police headquarters presently is the second-oldest in the county, built in 1968 along with the rest of City Hall, then called the Civic Center. And it never did the job well, even when it was new in the early 1970s. It did survive the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but barely and then only under the prodding of Fred Hermann, former chief building official, who worked with Public Works people to upgrade the facility, adding buttresses to the ends of the police buildings and reinforcing vulnerable welded seams throughout City Hall.
Even so, the large concrete arcade around the City Hall block had to be removed due to quake damage. Reports indicate the structure still has seismic risks, and that underneath it is probably not the most logical place for an emergency dispatch or command center in earthquake country. The structure has failed to live up to the "safe building" assurances of city officials in the late 1960s, when I was reporting on the construction for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times.
I and Times' photographer Gene Tupper once climbed all through the under-construction building, including out to the end of the giant overhead crane for a great birds'-eye view and photo.
Today, other than the new-building design considerations, what is most likely to emerge from the "re-imagining" process is some level of consolidation of services at two levels: combining administrative functions between police and fire departments, such as budgeting, purchasing and planning; and a likely consolidation of dispatch operations with some neighboring jurisdictions.
Burns made it clear that a full consolidation of police and fire operations (such as in Sunnyvale's Public Safety Department) is not envisioned. But Keene has been encouraging -- perhaps pushing is better description -- what he calls a "nominal consolidation" of management operations between police and fire, including Burns continuing as chief of both departments.
Voters will have the ultimate say on a new building -- and winning approval will likely need strong citizen leadership similar to what happened in the library bond measure that is funding the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center on Middlefield Road. Any champions around?
Otherwise we might be in for another 27 years of discussion, barring a major earthquake.
NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org with a cc: to email@example.com.