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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Troubling safety issues in our fair city

Uploaded: Sep 10, 2019
Palo Alto has to deal with certain safety issues. Specifically:

1) Where do we go for shelter if there’s a big emergency on our streets – or in the entire area? Let’s say, hypothetically, that there’s been a big gas explosion (think San Bruno) or a plane crash in the area that knocks out all electricity in town. Our cell phones are jammed with calls, no TV or Internet is available, and we don’t know where to go or what to do. So far Palo Alto’s Office of Emergency Services has done a great job describing how we should prepare ourselvesin our homes for an emergency (enough food and water for a week, flashlights, etc.) but I don’t know what to do if there is a big explosion. I once thought that we should go to our local fire stations but now I am told no, don’t do that. I know there are emergency kits and generators scattered in homes around town, but I don’t know where to find them. The city needs to develop and then designate shelters in town – for example, Palo Alto and Gunn high schools where large groups of people can gather and shelter, or all the churches along Middlefield Road, or City Hall or Mitchell Library so these places can be the main locales for assistance. This to me is a big need in our town, that I hope we will never need to use, but knowing there are shelters is a comforting thought and a necessary way to handle a big emergency.

2) Why does the fire department send out both a fire truck and a paramedic ambulance when any fire or health emergency call that comes into 911? It’s been a practice in town for years that if someone reports either a fire or a health emergency, the city sends out both a fire truck and an ambulance. It’s gone on for years, unnecessarily. Some nurses at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation said they call for a city ambulance to take a patient to Stanford Hospital and both a fire truck and an ambulance usually arrive. The fire personnel’s, including an EMT, checks things out and the fire truck turns around to return to the station. But surely the medical staff at PAMF knows they only need an ambulance to help with a patient with a heart attack or stroke get to the hospital. The same goes for calls from our homes – if someone reports a person has had a heart attack and she needs to get to the hospital, don’t send a fire truck, just get an ambulance.

I asked the new fire chief, Geo Blackshire, why the truck was needed, and he said there are more trucks than ambulances in town, and both are staffed with EMTs, so often the fire truck can get to the scene faster and the EMT can analyze the problem and the extent of services needed. Is that going to get an ambulance there faster?

I think some fire department padding has been going on. Years ago when Tony Spitaleri was fire chief, I was told years ago that the union wanted this coupling of truck and ambulance, because that would create a need for a bigger fire department staff to cover any emergency 24x7, and would guarantee more firefighter jobs

But times have changed now. Less than 4 percent of the 911 calls the city receives involve an actual fire – and of course, a fire absolutely needs trucks and paramedics. Most calls, however, are medical emergencies -- falls, accidents, elderly assistance and getting patients with a heart attack or whatever to the hospital. It’s time to rethink the staffing at the fire department -- practically, not politically – and determine whether fire trucks need to be at every 911 request for help.

3) Look up. Not down! Overhanging branches cover up street names, directional signs and even stop signs. Can the city do something about this? Trees are great, but it’s important that we see signs. I know of at least 15 streets in town where I can’t read their signs names because the tree leaves are covering them up. The city does so well in sending around sweepers, especially during the autumn months, to keep our streets leaf free, but it’s time to have city staff look up! We need to see our street signs. Maybe the city could set up a number where residents report if their street signs are hidden. Maybe we can hire Waymo drivers to list street signs they cant see and report it to city officials. It’s a relatively minor problem, but it would be nice to solve it. It’s a safety issue.
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Comments

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 10, 2019 at 1:39 pm

You bring up some excellent points.

Some of the discussions on the main page about fire in the foothills are worth taking into account. Web Link


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Aletheia, a resident of Green Acres,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 11:49 am

Aletheia is a registered user.

All good points. What I've noticed over the last couple years is the frequency of sirens is significantly higher than it used to be. I often joke that these guys must get a bonus every time they turn on the siren, but who knows?


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Street signs, a resident of University South,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 12:34 pm

I too have noticed the problem of non-visible street signs, combined with the fact that there is only one sign at an intersection.
I recall there used to be two signs per intersection.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Follow-up comments, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 1:38 pm

Follow-up comments is a registered user.

1) The fire department has cut their headcount by 11 in 2017: Web Link

2) If there is a big gas explosion you should immediately evacuate the area

3) You should only go to a shelter if your home is destroyed or unsafe. Shelters are a place of last resort. It is very unlikely your house will be destroyed by a major earthquake thanks the building codes instituted in the 1950s. Of course do check for gas leaks and fires but as long as your house and your neighborhood remain safe, that's probably the best place to be. PS: Avoid your brick chimneys as they tend to crumble in an earthquake.

4) Do not go to the schools after an earthquake, unless its to pick up your kid(s). Their responsibility and plans are for their students only.

5) For earthquakes, you should already have your emergency kit in your home. Other folks are not building emergency kits for you. Here's the city page for family emergency preparedness including how to build a kit is here: Web Link

6) Consider joining Palo Alto Emergency Service Volunteers. It's a great way to prepare and in the event of an emergency help your neighbors.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by PA Parent, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 2:06 pm

Interesting article, thanks! I was told that the City of Palo Alto and the Red Cross have a contract in place with the Cubberly Community Center to operate as a shelter or evacuation site in times of crisis. I'm told they have three gyms that can be utilized, one for women, one for males, and one for families. It's important to mention here that the Red Cross and the City do not have policies in place to separate registered sex offenders from general population. That said, I'm not even sure if it would be possible to do so. However, it is something to consider if you have small children especially.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Rose, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 3:08 pm

Rose is a registered user.

Years ago I called the fire department to ask them to turn off their engines when they are sitting and waiting for the paramedics to return from a medical emergency. I was thinking about the unnecessary air and noise pollution. I was told, with quite some pride in the officer's voice, that Palo Alto has the BEST emergency protocols in the country. I'm glad to report that some years later they finally stopped letting the motors run and run and run for no reason. However, the needless double response of a fire truck AND an ambulance is totally unnecessary. It adds to air pollution, noise pollution and traffic congestion. Palo Alto's fire department should be smarter.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 4:43 pm

Where should we go?

To answer this particular question of course is problematic. Every different type of emergency is different and would require a different type of escape/evacuation plan and would affect a different number of homes. Of course, in a power outage as a result of a disaster, schools, churches, etc. are likely to have the same type of outage if they are within the same neighborhood. If the emergency happens during the night, there are more than likely no way that a school or a church can be utilized until daylight and a keyholder arrives.

The thread about wildfires is a good starting point, evacuating an area where fire is rampant such as in the foothills the roads themselves are more of a problem to drive than the question of where the people evacuated would go. In the case of a firestorm, wind direction, etc. may prove that the escape route (e.g. Page Mill Road) could be right in the middle of the fire.

In the event of an earthquake, we would have the problem of having thousands of non-residents in the city, working at their desks, and they could well be a bigger group than people stuck in their homes depending on the time of day. Saying that schools, churches, or community centers could be used as evacuation centers may have the additional problem of these places being filled with people from a large radius at the time of the emergency.

I think you are right asking these questions. However, the types of emergency as well as the time of day would mean that every scenario would be very different. Even getting our off duty emergency personnel from their far flung homes to get to help us could well be as big a problem as anything else.

Good discussion topic. Thanks.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 7:46 pm

> Years ago when Tony Spitaleri was fire chief ...

Tony Spitaleri was never Palo Alto Fire Chief. He was President of the Palo Alto Firefighters Union (Local 1319) for more than 25 years.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 8:02 pm

2) Why does the fire department send out both a fire truck and a paramedic ambulance when any fire or health emergency call that comes into 911?

Seems to me that if there are injuries at the destination, or a fireman gets hurt it makes sense to be prepared. It seems like a prudent and efficient operation procedure to have a paramedic onsite.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by bikermom, a resident of Mayfield,
on Sep 11, 2019 at 8:21 pm

In regard to the trees covering signs. About twice a year I have to report a tree at Cal ave and Park Blvd that covers a stop sign to 311. Cars will frequently run that stop sign (i mean they also do even when they see it) but people will do it more when the tree is covering it and I was glad to say that they took car of it the very next day.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Martin, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 12, 2019 at 1:24 pm

2) Why does the fire department send out both ... Amen to that! I have been questioning this for years, got some response from our past city manager Keene, but obviously, it never went anywhere.

If there are more fire trucks than ambulances, and 96% of the calls are medical, let's sell some fire trucks, and buy more ambulances!! I'm sure if there is a real fire, we will get enough currently idle trucks to show up.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by PA CERT, a resident of Ventura,
on Sep 12, 2019 at 9:33 pm

PA CERT is a registered user.

Previous comments have good points about sheltering in place unless fire, flood or air quality requires relocation.

The MAIN point is that we need to be self sufficient as we can not rely on the CITY to be available to respond to all emergencies after a major event.

Neighbors can help each other by participating in Palo Alto's Emergency Services Volunteer training.

Web Link


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Safety First, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 13, 2019 at 3:41 am

Diana,
The greatest concerns in this area are probably earthquake followed by fire, especially in the fall. And then there's terrorism.

I have more than once been doing ordinary things in the last few years and heard unusual explosions -- not fireworks, not anything normal, actual explosions. We've tried to report them, and I know others heard them too, but nothing.

What's troubling is that for most of our history, Palo Alto didn't even take safety seriously in the Comp Plan. Where they had a separate business section in there even though the state didn't require one, they did not have a separate safety one even though the state did require it. They rolled it into natural environment and didn't deal with any urban safety hazards at all.

More troubling is that when citizens brought safety concerns about various development projects to the safety departments, even if there were relevant codes being violated, they wouldn't comment and wouldn't get involved because they answered to planning and transportation, not the other way around.

Diana, safety has no defender in our City Council, except for maybe Lydia Kou, but safety concerns get shot down if they in any way temper the overdevelopment. This is how you end up with disasters and people getting blamed for allowing the development, with the developers and their bankrolls long gone.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 13, 2019 at 7:40 am

Safety rules are important to keep for obvious reasons. It is usually after a disaster when investigations start that it is discovered that so many safety violations have lead to the magnitude of the disaster.

The Ghost House fire seems to indicate that safety fire violations on multiple levels. Regardless of who was at fault, the facts remain that common sense safety measures were ignored. Likewise, the dive boat tragedy seems to indicate in the latest news that all crew members were asleep instead of having one awake during the night to watch for problems. It seems to me that safety rules are imperative. From making sure that there are no obstacles that would prevent a fire truck from getting to a fire as quickly as possible to having road signs not covered by trees.

As individual residents, we can't do much about the obstacles built on streets, but as individual residents we can all go out and cut down a small branch or some hedging that obscures street signs.

However, safety rules are there for good reason. Any time a safety violation, and in particular a fire violation, is flouted a potentially dangerous situation exists.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 13, 2019 at 11:37 am

Posted by Follow-up comments, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,, on Sep 11, 2019 at 1:38 pm

>> 4) Do not go to the schools after an earthquake, unless its to pick up your kid(s). Their responsibility and plans are for their students only.

People often go to school grounds during emergencies for a good reason: frequently there are large play areas and athletic fields that offer separation from power lines and fires. Sometimes school playgrounds and fields are the only nearby non-flammable open space. During the aftermath of a fire or earthquake-fire, sometimes it makes sense to retreat to school grounds if people are threatened by fire in their homes. What doesn't make sense is to assume that the authorities will help them when they get there. Anyone who retreats to school grounds should bring their own emergency backpack/bag with them. Especially -water- !!! Stay out of the way of students and school staff if any are (still) present. Nearby parks would be better, if they have large expanses of lawns without fire hazards like eucalyptus trees.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 13, 2019 at 3:23 pm

P.S. I was reminded that some of our new playing fields are plastic + sand-like rubber, which were installed to minimize wet-weather maintenance and dry-weather water usage. These probably are not a good place to gather in a fire emergency.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Casey Jones, a resident of Nixon School,
19 hours ago

When it comes to first responders more often they're responding to their own economic needs. If the fire trucks didn't roll we wouldn't notice how seldom they're actually needed. Very often I find fire trucks in front of the Menlo Park Safeway, not to fight a fire, but to do grocery shopping. If firefighters really wanted to look needed they'd run a grocery delivery service with the fire trucks during their shift.

"Here's your organic papaya and fried chicken Mister. Mind if I check your water heater."



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