News


Palo Alto-based FireSafe Council aims to reduce fire hazards

'Everybody talks about earthquakes and pandemics, but they don't talk about wildfires'

Under slightly different conditions, a wildland fire in the Palo Alto hills earlier this month could have spread to homes and perhaps taken lives, fire officials said at the scene. It has happened before.

A devastating wildfire on July 1, 1985, destroyed 11 homes. Since then, firefighters have kept small a series of blazes caused by arson, accident or nature. But the constant challenge in the brush-covered hills is that fuel for a potential runaway fire continues to grow.

Now, a new fire-prevention council spearheaded by Mark Nadim, Palo Alto Hills Neighborhood Association president, is working to help residents clear the land around their homes of combustible materials and reduce the dangers in foothills residents' picturesque surroundings.

The Midpeninsula FireSafe Council is part of an agreement between the City of Palo Alto and the Santa Clara County FireSafe Council, funded by grants from municipalities, Pacific Gas & Electric, individuals and large companies.

The councils were initiated by Cal Fire to reduce fire hazards through education and with citizens' help. In February, the Midpeninsula FireSafe Council and the city began their first brush-removal project along the south side of Arastradero Road. Thirteen other projects have been completed, from cutting back or removing plants to clearing what's known as "defensible space" — a buffer and a firefighting zone — around water tanks, pump stations and Fire Station 8 in Foothills Park.

Eight more projects are underway, according to the group's Web page.

The Midpeninsula council has just three members right now, but Nadim said he hopes more people will join.

"When a fire starts, you don't know when it's going to end. People need to realize the dangers. Especially in this year with drought, one really has to pay attention," said Nadim, who moved to Palo Alto Hills in 1986, one year after the July 1, 1985, wildfire.

He has been involved in emergency preparedness, with a particular interest in fire safety, for years and ran for Palo Alto City Council in 2007.

Since the major fire in 1985, most of the old-timers have moved out. Many new people who have moved in are not aware of the fire hazard in the area.

"Everybody talks about earthquakes and pandemics, but they don't talk about wildfires," Nadim said.

But Palo Alto Hills and residences nestled between Arastradero Road, the Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club, and the northern end of Foothills Park are in the danger zones outlined in Palo Alto's Foothills Fire Management Plan. Dry vegetation could create "fire tunnels," in which roads, including stretches of Page Mill Road, are completely blocked, plan consultants noted. A fire-danger map developed showed flames could rise up to 20 feet high and sweep toward some homes at up to 4 miles per hour.

Although the brush fire earlier this month, caused by a car crash, only burned 1.5 acres, the damage could have been far greater, firefighters said. The wind wasn't blowing that day, and staff from an open-space preserve came upon the scene early.

Eight fire engines from three agencies, a helicopter dumping water and a plane dumping fire retardant doused the blaze before it could get out of control.

Nadim is looking to collaborate with residents in surrounding neighborhoods. He recently reached out to Esther Clark Park neighborhood and along upper Page Mill Road, and he wants to work with other FireSafe councils in the Skyline area and Woodside, he said.

Fire knows no boundaries, he said.

An ongoing concern is that many residents don't how to protect their properties. One man said he tried to mow the weeds on his property, but the area is not flat and he was not successful, Nadim recalled.

"Part of the education is what to do with the weeds and how to create a defensible space," he said.

The council is teaching residents about appropriate tools for uneven-terrain weed reduction, such as using a weed whacker, and how to find businesses willing to work in poison oak areas, he said.

Much of his time is spent just going property by property to build relationships.

"To get the community to know what you are doing is the hardest part," he said.

Email lists don't do the job unless one knows the person. People ask questions, but they don't get involved, he said.

So Nadim is relying on old-fashioned shoe leather. He doesn't want a devastating fire to be the common experience that binds people together.

Those interested in the Midpeninsula FireSafe Council can call Mark Nadim at 650-740-0150 or visit sccfiresafe.org/communities/midpeninsula.

Comments

Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 10:45 am

Mr. Nadim is to be complimented for his initiative in trying to better prepare for preventing wildfires in this part of the Peninsula. It's probably fair to say that in this part of the world, that people start wildfires—and that early detection is the key to reducing damage from these fires.

However, the larger issue of whether we, the people of this part of California, have done enough to set in place the necessary resources to respond to these fires, once started, goes unanswered.

The matter of keeping a fire station open up in the foothills comes up every budgeting cycle. The recent fire on the lands of the MidPeninsula Land Trust saw a response of several jurisdictions—which draws into question the value of keeping one small station open. While the people living in the Palo Alto Hills demand the same fire protection as those living in the "flats"—they are voluntarily assumed a lot more risk by choosing to live in such a high-risk area. Perhaps it's time to acknowledge this choice, and create a Fire Abatement District that imposes a parcel tax on each of the residents living in the hills—so that additional resources can be paid for by those have helped to create problems that other people don't have.

There is also the issue of more technological solutions to early detection. Have our various fire departments been forward thinking, and installed sufficient equipment that gives them warning that a fire has started in these foothills?

All of the various political subdivisions on the Peninsula would seem to make this a difficult problem to solve—even though we've been fighting fires since we starting living in caves.


Posted by Safety should be first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 4:41 pm

@Flat-lander,
I appreciate your intelligent post, but want to give you more to think about. This isn't a hills versus flatland issue.

My flat neighborhood in Palo Alto today is more vegetated and densely inhabited than my flat part of the Oakland hills down towards Lake Temescal that burned in the Oakland firestorm. In fact, my neighborhood in Oakland had better access to two freeways, and had a more modern water system than my neighborhood in Palo Alto. My next-door neighbor in Oakland was a fireman and was home that day.

Most people do not realize that many of the homes in Oakland did not burn in a fast-moving wildfire like you saw on TV, but burned through the night in a quiet house-to-house progression because there was no one to put it out. Oakland had hydrant connections that did not fit the standardized ones from the surrounding communities so mutual aid sat parked on the freeways and could do nothing. Oakland had hose adaptors but did not consider that it would be hard to find them and hand them out in exactly the kind of major fire for which they were needed (when a lot of mutual aid would be called). It was no accident that dozens of homes burned in Berkeley and thousands in Oakland that day.

With safety, it should be a big red warning flag when someone says "We can always...." as in, We can always pass out the adaptors, or, We can always rely on the sprinkler systems in people's homes (as in the new Mayfield development that doesn't meet fire code).. Especially worrisome is when there is no "We can always" but instead a denial that anything bad can every happen.

Some people on Broadway Terrace in Oakland took video in the night of what was happening. For most homes, one would burn, then the windows of the next would break out from the heat, something inside would ignite, and then slowly and quietly, the house would catch fire. In some cases, the lone house that survived here or there was either set off from its neighbors or the outer pane of new windows busted out and the inner pane held.

In Palo Alto, the houses in the flats are very close to one another. Most of Palo Alto is in a liquifaction hazard zone. How many homes have seismic shut-off valves for gas? Fire is a significant problem after a seismic event.

Have you thought about defensible space in your area? It's different than for people in the hills. Do you have ivy with thick dead undergrowth? Juniper which was popular in the '50s and is explosive just from sparks from elsewhere and can burn hot for days after it catches? Do you have double-paned windows and insulation in the walls? Do you have a seismic shut-off for your gas? Have you upgraded your foundation so the house is less likely to slide off and break a gas line? If your house goes, so could your neighborhood.

Do not think just because you live in the flats that you are any less at risk. Particularly since our City Council seems to spend almost no time and effort thinking about safety and our state-mandated safety element in the Comprehensive Plan is rolled up in the Natural Environment Element almost like a vague afterthought. In Palo Alto, the fire department takes cues from planning and transportation in the City power structure - planning and transportation tells fire if there is a problem to evaluate, note the other way around - the same planning and transportation that deems every new overdevelopment will have "no impact".

Thanks to residents like Mark Nadim for what you are doing to help the rest of us prepare.


Posted by Mike Alexander, a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jun 28, 2014 at 9:31 pm

@safety should be first: those are interesting stories from the Oakland fire, and good points about earthquake safety. In 1906, the earthquake itself caused enormous destruction, but the fire caused a great deal more. We don't have cooking fires as they did in '06, but our natural gas connections are quite vulnerable during earthquake.

With or without liquefaction (USGS rates that risk as "moderate" in our flatlands), the shaking from a strong earthquake can easily break gas pipes. Automated shut-offs are the best defense, especially when backed up by residents who have the wrench and the know-how to shut off gas manually.

Hats off to Mr. Nadim for his initiative and effort. There are more houses and activity in the hills now than ever, and the drought has increased the risk alarmingly. Education about, and enforcement of, defensible space around structures is key. No matter how good the fire-fighting response, it is always more effective if owners have implemented the recommended precautions.


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 29, 2014 at 9:42 am

@Safety-should-be-first
Thanks for your emotion free, rational response. In the past, it's been difficult to discuss this issue without people flaming each other.

I watched the Oakland Hills fire, but do not remember ever seeing a complete report on the part of the Oakland Fire Department. So, I am not going to comment on your views. I suppose that there are lessons to learn from that tragedy, but without a report at hand, we don't have enough information to make comparisons between the Oakland Hills and Palo Alto.

You have suggested a number of issues, which need response. Let's start with the following three:

> Most of Palo Alto is in a liquifaction hazard zone.
> How many homes have seismic shut-off valves for gas?
> Fire is a significant problem after a seismic event.

One immediate response is that in the hundred and twenty years of Palo Alto's existence—there have been no fires that have consumed whole neighborhoods, or gas explosions that have consumed even a part of a neighborhood, or any liquefaction in the two big earth quakes in memory—1906 and 1989. One could argue that there is "always tomorrow', but the probabilities are very slight that a catastrophic meltdown of our town, like that which occurred in San Francisco, is likely. In fact, if we were to research the number of instances where a gas-pipe explosion destroyed more than a few homes—how many instances would we find? Using that historical data—one view about gas-distribution safety in an urban setting would provide a picture of a very stable/safe energy distribution methodology.

The point about seismic shutoffs is interesting, because it is something that the City could do, provided that there was some demonstrable reason. We should certainly want to know if there are any seismic shutoffs on the main system at the junction(s) where the trunk lines meet the Palo Alto Utility's redistribution system. It would pay to know how long it would take to vent the gas in the ground going to the neighborhoods. The Utility has not been very open with this sort of information. Certainly after the San Bruno gas-pipe explosion, the Utility has provided little in terms to helping the Palo Alto ratepayers understand the safety aspects of the PAU's gas redistribution system.

The comment about each homeowner being able to turn off the gas at the meter is certainly something that offsets the need for thousands of seismic-shutoffs. It takes all of a minute, or so, to get to the outside of one's home, and turn the valve from the on position to the off position. Of course, there are people who don't know how to hold a wrench—but it's never too late to learn. The Utility could provide each homeowner with a "how to" sheet, and even offer them a walk-thru by an employee, if the Utility wanted to.

One other point about seismic shuts on gas meters—how violent should the ground be shaking when the seismic shutoff kicks in? And can these valves be reset by the home owner, or would they need to be reset by the Utility?
Given the option, some would rather see the money spent on new meters that can be read remotely—so that the cost of energy in the home can be reduced.
And then there is the matter of home sprinkler systems being retrofitted into all homes in the City. Given that most fires are not directly related to faulty gas equipment, money spent on sprinklers would be more effective than money spent on seismic gas shutoffs.

As to the point of Palo Alto being in a "liquefaction zone"—what magnitude quake would have to occur before this phase transformation occurred? So far, in the past one hundred and twenty years, there hasn't been such an event, has there?

Palo Alto is spending about 60M a year for public safety, via the police and fire departments. Other public safety expenditures are hidden in the Utilities budget, and other Administrative expenditures—like a so-called Emergency Response Manager (or some such). It certainly would be interesting to see if this ERM has ever produced a comprehensive City Emergency Plan that deals with all of the concerns of @safety-should-be-first.

It's very easy to dream up boogymen that need some sort of expensive counter-measure to neutralize. There is only so much public money to go around—and it already is being heavily invested in bloated salaries and benefits for City employees who are all-too-often not delivering the services that our money is funding.


Posted by Safety should be first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 29, 2014 at 2:48 pm

@ Flatlander,
It can be difficult to carry on a discussion online, because it's impossible to see people. So I also appreciate a good discussion without any emotion being read into it, thanks.

The Oakland Firestorm was one of the most examined disasters in our nation's history. You can search engine for official reports to easily find things like, "The efforts of mutual aid companies were complicated however by the lack of compatibility of their hose connections with Oakland's hydrant system." (The fire itself happened before there was really broad use of the internet, though, or even wide use of a graphical interface, still there is no lack of resources to read. There was a lot of news coverage of the final report, you might try searching the archives of the Oakland Tribune or SF newspapers if you are interested.)

When big disasters happen, it's because of a cascade of things that go wrong, and counting on handing out hose adaptors was unfortunately, asking for it. Oakland had never had such a major event in modern history, either, only smaller ones in the hills -- just like we have had here in Palo Alto. Then a more major disaster burned both hills and into the flats.

In Berkeley after that big earthquake they had in the 19th century, the city burned way into the flats. I read that students saved the university by throwing water-soaked wool blankets over fences.

You wrote "One immediate response is that in the hundred and twenty years of Palo Alto's existence—there have been no fires that have consumed whole neighborhoods, "

Waiting until you can point to major disaster history or loss of life before acting is the antithesis of sound safety planning. Palo Alto isn't exactly the same today as it was 120 years ago or even 10 years ago. That's not really a sound approach to safety planning. The conditions today are much more populated and dense, which relates to things like evacuation and potential for starting and spreading a fire, emergency access, etc., and there is a lot more gas lines, etc.

The probabilities relate to the conditions, which are what safety planning addresses, not whether the same disaster has happened before. We know what can happen in homes of such dense urban areas after an earthquake. Fire is usually the major threat, not the earthquake itself, particularly with single-story wooden homes. If you look at historical data relative to the conditions, you include other communities in California or even Australia. The fact that our town has not experienced what is actually an eminently possible scenario, given a look a the rest of similar cities/construction, is not an argument against sound safety planning, nor does it even speak to whether the probabilities are slight. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Tokyo in the early part of the 20th century was flat, too. And, they could easily have said before their major quake that they hadn't had a fire that spread and killed over 100,000 people within the past 120 years, either.

I would note, relative to school seismic planning in Caifornia, I don't think there has been any loss of life in California schools in all the earthquake events we've had in the last 120 years, either. If you believe FEMA's evaluation, though, it's because luckily all the most serious events occurred during hours when children weren't present, not because we had such great safety codes. FEMA points out that had the biggest earthquakes happened at other times, there would have been significant loss of life given the damage we know happened to schools.

My message above was that people in the flats should not be complacent and that there are risks in the flats, and if anything, people are more at risk because they seem to be unaware of them. Drive through much of Barron Park and see how overgrown it is —

My other message is that our City needs to start putting safety first. That it's not is a much longer discussion, but I do want to make the point that having a separate Safety Element in the new revision of the Comp Plan will go a long way toward focusing our civic duties on safety.

Before we talk about whether we have the money or not for safety, first safety has to be properly planned, with good information. Many cities in California have already had this conversation, which is why so many of them actually mandate automatic seismic shutoffs for gas lines. Individual home sprinkler systems are incredibly expensive, cause incredible damage if they malfunction (which is a real risk), and are of little use and may even compromise civic water pressure from leaks after a major seismic event when they are likely to be impacted negatively.

There's no great mystery around upgrading foundations so the houses survive a quake. After Northridge quake, there was a lot of investigation about what helped homes survive that kind of event. We are not so dissimilar. Our home construction is very similar, and there are upgrades people can make for less than the cost of a few years' insurance that will all but ensure their homes survive intact after a major quake.

There is also no great mystery about the importance of cutting back vegetation, particularly in such a drought, even in the flats. I hope you will continue to look into it, but recognize the common sense of clearing out defensible space everywhere in town, especially in neighborhoods adjacent to the hills, not just the hills. In the event of a major event in high fire danger areas, cinders and ash can travel quite far.

And to the point that there is only so much money to go around -- our first responsibility for spending civic money is on safety.


Posted by Pat, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Seismic shutoff valves can be reset by the homeowner. You may need a screwdriver to reset the shutoff valve. If you have a seismic shutoff valve installed, you may be eligible for a discount on your homeowner's insurance. Check with your insurance agent about this.

Seismic shutoff valves will shutoff the gas line automatically. In order to shut the valve manually, you need to be at home in addition to having the proper wrench and knowing how to use it.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 29, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Pat, do you know how much it costs to install a seismic shutoff valve and what kind of contractor one calls to do it?

Here's a story from the Weekly on group discounts for foundation seismic upgrades. I wonder if it's possible for seismic shutoffs?
Web Link


Posted by Pat, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 30, 2014 at 6:35 am

Safety, I used a licensed plumbing contractor. Ten years ago the price for the device and installation was about $375.


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 9:27 am

A little googling generates a goodly number of results for "seismic shutoff valves'--

Web Link

The $375 number cited above seems to be on-target for parts and labor.

One point that comes out of this googling is that these valves are cusomter equipment, and not a part of the service offered by the gas companies under the PUC. Since Palo Alto is a municiply-owned operation, it could, conceivably) offer such a service.

missing from the search results was any indication of how many of these devices trip during the hundreds of earth quakes that occur here in California every year.


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 9:58 am

> When big disasters happen, it's because of a
> cascade of things that go wrong
Not certain that's really true. Catastrophic earthquakes occur all of the time. Most deaths occur because of buildings collapsing on people inside. It's hard to find a lot of evidence of fires following these earthquakes—as was the case in San Francisco. Disease, based on the inability to provide adequate medical care on location might bolster your suggestion.
> Palo Alto isn't exactly the same today as it was 120 years ago
Granted.
> even 10 years ago.
Have to disagree here. The population is barely 5,000 increased, and there have been very few homes built, or buildings of any substantial height built, for that matter.
> The probabilities relate to the conditions, which are what
> safety planning addresses, not whether the same disaster
> has happened before.
And just how does one determine the probability of catastrophic events—like earth quakes—without considering past events, as a part of the process? Seismology/Geophysics has yet to provide us any evidence of how to predict future earthquake events. On the other hand, geology can provide us the geologic record of how many quakes have occurred in a given location, during a given time range. This data is very often quoted by people working in this area as a basis for their predictions.
Airplanes have a crash record that is very often quoted as a basis for safety. There are very few people using models to predict airliner safety—although certainly models make modern airplane design possible.
Analysis of past events provides us insight into root causes, and provides the data necessary to do better safety planning than in the past.
Sorry, but we have a large point of disagreement here.
> relative to school seismic planning in Caifornia, I don't think there
> has been any loss of life in California schools in all the earthquake
> events we've had in the last 120 years, either

Don't know of any fatalities, either. But this is more fortuitous than by planning—prior to the early 1930s. There was an earthquake in Longbeach in 1933 (if memory serves) where a fairly new school collapsed. School was not in session at the time, so students were not in the building. After that, a State Legislator by the name of Henry Field got a law passed that required that all school construction involve the Office of the State Architect in the design review process. For better or worse, this second level of design review (beyond that of the school officials) has not seen any schools collapse during earth quakes. Of course, very few people have been killed in California because of earthquakes, so we (as a state) are very lucky.

> My other message is that our City needs to start putting safety first.

It's really difficult for me to understand your adamancy here—given the lack of data, or events, to back up your claim that we are "unsafe" here in Palo Alto because the City/City Council has not been "putting safety first".

What evidence can you produce? We spend about $60M on our public safety units—the Fire/Police Departments. The Utility's operations, although not under the control of the PUC, and not very responsible to the people of Palo Alto, does not have a track record of gas pipe failures resulting in explosions. The City funds an animal shelter, with personnel that are trained to deal with dangerous animals, the major intersections are signalized. The number of traffic accident deaths is very low (usually zero) here in Palo Alto. Various traffic calming projects have been instituted to reduce traffic speeds—although not all have been successful. The Fire Department has Mutual Aid agreements with several of the surrounding cities, and there is now new cooperation at the Emergency Dispatch Center, which is cooperating with other local cities to provide a centralized dispatching capability. And the swimming pools have trained life-saving guards.

Sure—there probably is no contingency for epidemics, and asteroid hits from space—but few other municipalities can boast well devised plans for this sort of calamity.

It would be difficult to determine from the current budget format exactly how much of the City's expenditures are directed towards public safety—but it would be likely in the 60% range—which seems like a lot of money out of a $150+M budget.

Would be interested in your evidence, or your refutation of the points made above that the City is currently providing the public.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 12:44 pm

"When big disasters happen, it's because of a
> cascade of things that go wrong"

Sorry, I meant to qualify that by mentioning the man-made component. Disasters with a man-made component or potential prevention end up big usually because of a cascade of problems. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not in itself so destructive of New Orleans, there were a whole host of man-made contributors to the disaster that resulted in the flooding and the far worse damage. In 9/11, the City had its main emergency control in the towers. In the 2nd tower, people were told to go back to work, despite the situation with more than one hijacked plane aloft and what had just happened to the 1st tower. You might say that they couldn't have predicted such an act, but someone had already tried to take down the towers with an act of terrorism by bombing the basement. I visited the towers just a few years before 9/11, and the the question of whether there was preparedness in case of air attack or accident after the basement bombing was actually a topic of discussion with my spouse. It's not a stretch. (We concluded by guessing that for sure the professionals in the City would be thinking of those things. We guessed wrong.) When you think safety, you don't just think probabilities, you think of consequences irrespective of probabilities, and if there is a possibility and the consequence is unacceptable, how to prevent the consequences especially if prevention is fairly low-cost. Often, it just takes planning. The melt-down at Fukushima is another example. It's in these types of "man-made" or technological disasters that usually a cascade of things go wrong. The Titanic is another good example. People reason in advance that probably it won't happen.

I read about the cascade of things that go wrong in one of the many post-disaster analyses I've combed through, including (as an affected person) the Oakland disaster.

You are obviously a smart person, I want you to consider that just because you can reason through something, doesn't make it right. When it comes to safety, there are two important maxims: Safety First, and Err on the Side of Safety.

The latter means, when you don't have all the information, if you're going to make a mistake, you make the mistake on the side of safety. If you and I don't have all the information and are guessing, as we are both doing here, err on the side of safety. We humans love to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to safety, and that includes me and you. Even when you say "not sure that's true" you keep erring on the other side.

> Palo Alto isn't exactly the same today as it was 120 years ago
Granted.
Ok. But your point was based on whether Palo Alto has had a major disaster in the last 120 years. That's a non sequitur anyway, but much of modern Palo Alto was built in just the last several decades.

> even 10 years ago.
Have to disagree here. The population is barely 5,000 increased, and there have been very few homes built, or buildings of any substantial height built, for that matter.

My observation from living here a few decades is that the traffic has gone nuts in the last 2-3 years. You aren't accounting for cumulative impacts or limitations of infrastructure, which we are not assessing. It's horrendous getting around here. But then, ease of getting around as one of my top 5 favorite things about Palo Alto compared to the rest of SV, so I notice. We don't even have a big picture tool for traffic circulation and planning, and we definitely have never done any kind of egress modeling for disasters. (I don't even want to mention where I can prove to you we are really vulnerable here because I don't want to give the wrong element any ideas.)

If you go back and read my post, we made exactly the same point about earthquakes and loss of life in schools: no one has died but it was because we were lucky, not because of great construction codes. The point being, safety planning is about prevention mainly, not just about responding only once the worst has happened.

How much money we spend is not evidence of spending the money well, having the right priorities, or even good planning (which is often not very expensive -- other maxim: Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.) Our State Mandated Safety Element in the Comprehensive Plan is rolled into the Natural Environment Element as almost an afterthought. Our City Council places a de facto much higher priority on responding to development interests than safety. Just even pulling out the Safety Element and making specific policies related to safety in the Comprehensive Plan would give us an opportunity to make safety more of a priority and focus. Then implementing some of the safety measures other similar municipalities have done given our unique risks.


Posted by Safety should be first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 12:54 pm

In regards to post-earthquake fires. Here's an article from disastersafety.org from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, the people most interested in whether post-seismic events will result in fires:
Web Link

The article points out, among other things:
"Large fires following earthquakes are rare, but when they do occur they often are of catastrophic proportions. "

"The potential exists for significant fire-related losses when multiple ignitions occur in vulnerable
locations, like neighborhoods with densely spaced combustible wood-framed buildings"

Which is, essentially, Palo Alto.

So you see, probability is not main driver for safety planning for post-earthquake fires, first it's consequence and whether reasonable prevention can be done. This takes thought and planning, with safety as the priority, rather than just dismissing safety planning because we haven't yet had such a catastrophe which is, given conditions, eminently possible.

If we had a major fire after an earthquake, what if it occurred during our extended commute times? Often trees, power lines, and collapsed buildings can block routes. Have we done any analysis of egress networks in the event of a disaster? Of course not. Because we would only know to do that if Planning told Fire there was a circulation problem, and Planning is never going to tell Fire anything except whatever they want to pack in here has "no impact".

Fighting to put safety first is people who care about safety against people who want us to live dangerously. It's usually a much harder struggle between those who want to err on the side of safety and do proper planning and prioritization, and those who are complacent.

There is also a classic safety struggle between those who think consequentially and those who think probabilistically. We need both kinds of thinking in order to properly plan for safety, not just the latter.

@ Pat,
Thanks for the info! We will get a quote today.


Posted by Safety should be first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 12:56 pm

"Fighting to put safety first is people who care about safety against people who want us to live dangerously. It's usually a much harder struggle between those who want to err on the side of safety and do proper planning and prioritization, and those who are complacent."


Sorry, I hope you could see I meant: Fighting to put safety first is NOT people who care about safety against people who want us to live dangerously. It's usually a much harder struggle between those who want to err on the side of safety and do proper planning and prioritization, and those who are complacent."


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm

"It's really difficult for me to understand your adamancy here—given the lack of data, or events, to back up your claim that we are "unsafe" here in Palo Alto because the City/City Council has not been "putting safety first"."

Whether we are "unsafe" or not is a different issue than whether we are properly planning for safety and continually looking at prevention. Just as we wouldn't expect an airport to look at safety once and then figure it's enough no matter how much the airport expands, we shouldn't just put in place a Safety Element in our Comp Plan, rolled into another element no less with few overt and specific policies, and far less time and focus spent on Safety than on, say, the housing element, and then expect it to suffice decades later after safety conditions have changed significantly.

I mean, looking at it your way, if we have so few deaths in Palo Alto traffic, what evidence do you have that seatbelts or child carseats are necessary? You don't use a seatbelt or a car seat because you're going to go out and have an accident every day, you wear a seatbelt or put your baby in a carseat because the consequence if there is a rare accident is likely to be far worse than if you are wearing a seatbelt. The consequence of a baby flying across the car is unacceptable, where for the inconvenience of using a $60 car seat, that consequence can be entirely prevented. You can't know for sure what will happen, probably most people would never have such an accident, but that's the nature of safety planning.

I think properly planning to prevent loss of life in the event of foreseeable disasters is an essential role of government. Far more than putting up hundreds of thousands of dollars for art or millions for golf courses, as lovely as that is.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Well, there would be another data point. Council keeps complaining our safety building is unsafe in the same breath as saying we don't have the money to replace it, yet it puts millions into a golf course and renovating Council Chambers, and talks of spending some of the $40 million from Stanford funds on bike bridges rather than first dealing with a big picture safety planning responsibility they claim is urgent.

They put us all through a year-long civic battle over busting neighborhood zoning at Maybell, but when have they spent that kind of effort going to bat for the new safety building? What of forming a working group with PANDA to make it happen, looking for ideas? They just keep putting development over safety in the priorities of City business.


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 2:21 pm

> Well, there would be another data point. Council keeps complaining
> our safety building is unsafe in the same breath as saying we don't
> have the money to replace it, yet it puts millions into a golf course
> and renovating Council Chambers, and talks of spending some of the
> $40 million from Stanford funds on bike bridges rather than first
> dealing with a big picture safety planning responsibility they claim is urgent.

Ok .. thanks for providing a real data point.

You point would be well made, if the public's safety would be radically affected by the use of the money you have identified building a new PS Building. Discussions in the past have left the public with a lot of different information—most of which turns out to be anywhere from less-than-true to all bunk!

Former Police Chief Lynn Johnson admitted in a public meeting that there would be no decrease in crime if a new police building were to be constructed. The City has an Emergency Command Center that allegedly can perform the same job as the permanent one, and we now have the three-city cooperative agreement for Emergency Call/Dispatch.

The biggest complaint about the current quarters is that there are not enough locker rooms for some of the officers, and that the building is "seismically unstable". Of course, if the section of City Hall housing the Police Department is 'seismically unstable"—then the whole building is "seismically unstable". Of course, no one has been able to predict when, where, and at what magnitude the earthquake that will bring down City Hall will occur.

If your main point is that the City is spending money on non-essentials for special interest groups—that is a reasonable complaint—although it's not clear that these expenditures are putting anyone in real danger.

Shame it took this long to get to this point.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 2:55 pm

You asked for a specific, I gave you just one. I still don't seem to be able to reach you on the level of a Safety First ethos. I'd really like to, because I wish I understood how to bridge that divide. I think very differently after having lived through a major natural disaster (my spouse, 2), and being involved in all the post-disaster recovery and soul-searching. I think a lot about how to get people thinking about prevention in the right way.

Here's an article:
"Amid the chaos of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, emergency responders found they could not communicate with each other. That problem persists 10 years later, according to a review of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

Read more: Web Link
Follow us: @washtimes on Twitter
"
With all the focus and effort that went into 9/11, look at how difficult it is to ensure communications networks are functioning.

Advance disaster planning could have had an impact on 9/11 to begin with - for one, no one would ever have been told to go back to work in the 2nd tower that day. Not everyone listened when they were told it was okay, but many did. Those planes didn't reach NY instantly - thinking about the very real potential (because of the significant consequences) for such an act of terrorism in advance might have affected the response. We'll never know.

But then, if you plan ahead to prevent, often you don't know if you have prevented a disaster either, but overall erring on the side of safety does just that. Are we placing our priorities right that we can feel smug about being so much better prepared than NYC?

Read that article I linked to. It actually directly speaks to the issues we have here in Palo Alto in regards to fire risks. Web Link

It highlights really just one of many ways we are not prioritizing safety, and should.


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 3:05 pm

> 9/11, Twin Towers, Emergency Response

While this get us out of Palo Alto, the issue of not even thinking about an air attack against NYC buildings is true. In fact, one little bit of information that was not generally released to the public until the 9/11 Report was completed is that the US Air Force only had 14 "scramble ready" jets to defend the borders of the entire US. These planes were located at seven air bases (two planes each). "Scramble Ready" meant that the planes could be in the air in six minutes or less. The Air Force had decided that there was no possibility of an external air attack against the US--and therefore it didn't pay to keep whole squadrons of planes to be kept "Scramble Ready" once the FSU had folded its cards. Don't think that the Air Force ever revealed how long it would have taken to have gotten the 3rd, 4th and 5th planes into the air, after the first two were airborne and on their way to whatever problem needed their attention.

Since that time, also don't think the Air Force has revealed how many "Scramble Ready" planes are now guarding the US, either.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 3:16 pm

@Flat-lander,
The air force is a different governmental jurisdiction than New York. Your point is in a different ballpark altogether than mine. Good safety planning would have in fact looked at all of those things, and also -- good point you brought up -- involved interfacing with the federal government or military.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 6:26 pm

@Flat-Lander or Pat,
Do you know if the City utility has any rebates, discounts or perhaps even does installation of the seismic auto shutoffs for gas?


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 6:42 pm

> Do you know if the City utility has any rebates, discounts or perhaps
> even does installation of the seismic auto shutoffs for gas?

You should contact them directly for an answer to that question. Since the PAU is not under the oversight of the PUC, they are probably free to do whatever they want on this matter.

The value of these values is questionable, but concerned homeowners might feel "safer" with one installed on their gas line.


Posted by Pat, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 30, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Safety, I am not aware of any rebate program from the city for the installation of seismic shutoff valves. I do get a discount on my homeowner's insurance ever year.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2014 at 12:35 am

@ Pat,
"I do get a discount on my homeowner's insurance ever year."
Do you remember offhand how much/what order of magnitude?
Thanks!

@Flat - Lander,
Insurance companies are pretty conservative when it comes to their money. I wonder what you are basing your judgment that the value of these shut-off valves is questionable, when that article I linked recommended them and discussed why, and apparently insurance companies give a discount for them. They have a habit of offering discounts for things that demonstrably reduce the risk of casualty loss, with considerable evidence behind it.


Posted by David, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2014 at 9:42 am

Thank you to all the posters (flatlander and Safety Comes First) who have hijacked this post way off topic into left field. This article was to promote the local fire safe council and their attempt to bring awareness and fire safety to its residents. Your commments reinforce how bad this forum is.


Posted by Flat-Lander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2014 at 9:43 am

> Discount for purchasing seismic valve shut-off

The simplest thing for you to do is contact your insurance agent and ask about the discount.

Again—there isn't a lot of evidence that these devices save homes from burning during/after an earthquake, so what is the benefit to the insurance company to provide a discount?

There are places where there are no/few recorded earthquakes—so do you believe that the insurance companies would be extending discounts to everyone?

Making sure that a home is properly secured to its foundation is probably of more interest to insurers than a seismic valve cutoff.


Posted by Safety should come first, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 1, 2014 at 11:58 am

@David,
The Fire Safet Council is about helping residents reduce risks of fire. I'm sorry you feel that way about my back-and-forth discussion with Flatlander. Please go back to my original post, it was very much relevant to the issue of what we can all do to reduce the risk of large scale fire in this area. Flatlander seems to think very differently about whether there even are risks, and I am trying to understand conceptually why he thinks that way and convince him of my point of view about putting safety first.

That's not really as off track as you think, because the different typical mindsets people have toward safety are very much stumbling blocks to safety actions, including what the Council is involved in. Flatlander began the input on the premise that there is a difference between the hills and flats, and people don't have such risks in the flats, which I believe is an unsafe assumption. If a lot of people chose to be complacent like Flatlander, it would thwart the work of the Council in flat areas adjacent to wildland areas, which are really just as much at risk. Creating fire safety in such densely populated areas involves everyone.

If we have risks the Fire Safety Council is trying to reduce, the risks of a big event go up enormously after an earthquake. Reducing ignition sources is an important part of prevention, as the article I linked to above from the insurance Council discusses.

Flatlander and .I have a disagreement, though, and I think it's worth discussing his perspective, because it is a natural tendency in light of the inconvenience and sometimes costs, for many people to live in denial over safety. Leaving the public with the impression that there's just not enough evidence for them to do the most effective and common sense things is a point, as someone who thinks safety should come first, worth hashing out. Both Flatlander and I have disagreed and in most ways have opposing views, but the discussion has been civil. It's ironic that your criticism woukd then involve calling names.

@Flatlander,
When you say, "there isn't a lot of evidence that these devices save homes" - please explain why I should believe this unsupported, off-the-cuff statement from you, when the article I linked to above from a major insurance institute that studied this issue thoroughly recommends these shutoff valves to reduce risk of major fires after a seismic event IN THE SF BAY AREA. And Pat, a local resident, says she got a discount for hers, which means her insurance company has also deemed it an important measure along with monitored burglar alarms and other pretty indisputable risk reducers.


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