Fire districts revving up cross-border aid

Palo Alto and Menlo Park personnel will respond to fires within each others' service areas

When a wildfire ignited grasslands in Pearson Arastradero Preserve on Wednesday afternoon, the various city and county fire departments that responded ignored their usual boundaries.

Multiple fire agencies, including Palo Alto's and Menlo Park's, battled five blazes that could have harmed people and property had the response not been rapid. Pastures that contain about 155 horses are just 200 feet from the burned area, and the hills are surrounded by homes in Portola Valley and Los Altos.

The joint attack is one example of how fire responses will look in the near future due to expanding automatic-aid agreements. One year ago, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved a new arrangement between the Palo Alto and Menlo Park fire-protection districts in which engines and personnel in closest proximity to a fire or emergency will respond -- regardless of jurisdiction.

The agreement covers Code 3 incidents, which require a siren and red flashing lights. Paramedic services are not included.

Although the two agencies have cooperated since 1999, the updated arrangement will ensure that one truck company and a battalion chief from each agency will be present on the scene, allowing for better direction for personnel. The departments are also looking at ways to meld their communications and dispatch systems.

Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the 2010 plane crash into an East Palo Alto residential neighborhood brought to light the need for a new agreement. Confusion among the various departments responding to the incident led to his initiation of discussions with Palo Alto, he said.

The main reason for the agreement is maximum protection for the residents of both cities in the shortest amount of time, he said.

Fire departments have had a traditional culture of "turfing," he noted. He recalled a 1943 newspaper article he found that quoted a Menlo Park fire chief who was angry after Palo Alto had responded to a fire on his side of the border near San Francisquito Creek.

"He told the Palo Alto fire chief to 'get the hell out' of his town," Schapelhouman said. "We're in 2012. Government works more efficiently if we all work together. At the end of the day, it's better for the citizens of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. In an emergency, they want the closest resource."

A mutual response to a house fire on Jasmine Way in East Palo Alto on July 31 helped keep a second home -- where an elderly disabled woman lived -- from serious fire damage, he said.

Also last month, crews from both departments kept contained a Baylands grass fire that came within feet of homes in an adjacent East Palo Alto neighborhood.

Under the agreement, Menlo Park fire crews will go into Palo Alto as far as Embarcadero Road and up to Interstate 280 to the west, and to West Bayshore Road to the east. Palo Alto personnel will cover Menlo Park from Sand Hill Road and San Francisquito Creek to Valparaiso, Ravenswood and Ringwood avenues to the north (See map).

Palo Alto fire protection will extend into East Palo Alto from Highway 101 to Bay Road and to Cooley Landing. Menlo Park Fire will respond to emergencies at the Palo Alto Municipal Airport and in the surrounding Baylands, as well as providing water rescue in the San Francisquito Creek.

Schapelhouman said he hopes the entire program will be running by the end of the year. The real work to be done is within the dispatch center, which would send out the nearest units. Both agencies must find ways to meld or revise their different communications systems, he said.

Palo Alto fire department personnel and Schapelhouman will meet next week to talk about providing Palo Alto with additional communications equipment. Both departments recently conducted major radio system improvements so that they can talk on each department's frequencies, he said.

"We shouldn't rush that part because we need to do the analytics every time we make a change to ensure that the change is actually an improvement and working the way we want it to," he said.

Geo Blackshire, Palo Alto Fire deputy chief of operations, said a trial run in East Palo Alto in the last year has worked out well. While initially there were concerns that the aid would be lopsided, Blackshire said that has not turned out to be the case. Palo Alto has benefited when incidents occur closer to a Menlo Park station. If a Palo Alto station is closed or understaffed because of a response to another emergency, equipment and personnel from the nearest Menlo Park station can be used, he said.

The agreements will not cost the departments additional money, he said.

The multiple responses could help cover any personnel or equipment deficits, Schapelhouman said.

He is also seeking an automatic-aid agreement with Fremont Fire to cover parts of East Palo Alto beyond Bay Road to the Dumbarton Bridge. That agreement will come before the Fremont City Council in September.


Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of University South
on Aug 12, 2012 at 5:14 pm

One step closer to browning out or closing fire stations.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 13, 2012 at 9:05 am

This proposal offers encouragement that there might be some possibility to regionalize this necessary function of government. The article doesn't delve into this matter at all, so we really don't get much of a sense of how this new cooperation will work.

At some point, an analysis of the emergency response services for Palo Alto and Menlo Park (and possibly East Palo Alto) needs to be performed in order to understand what resources would be needed if a regionalization were to be considered. Too many people see fire protect only in terms of a fire station near their home, rather than in the fabric of the regional resources. Mutual Aid has helped to stitch together local resources in the past, but only loosely. Having a common dispatch center (which seems to be in the works, at some level) and compatible communications systems, is a good first step. But we also need full transparency in terms of tracking call-out locations, and costs associated with cross-boundary support.

Long term, we need 10-year, 20-year and 30-year cost estimations for providing emergency services under the current service delivery models, and under various scenarios for merged/regional delivery models.

Both Palo Alto and the Fire Protection District are to be commended for their forward thinking to date. Hopefully this cooperation will prove beneficial, and the basis for future cooperation in the future.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 13, 2012 at 10:27 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" Having a common dispatch center (which seems to be in the works, at some level) and compatible communications systems, is a good first step. But we also need full transparency in terms of tracking call-out locations, and costs associated with cross-boundary support."

ALL the fire departments in San Mateo County already have ONE dispatch center (a process initiated by MPFPD years ago), have dropped all boundaries and respond regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm

@ Wayne: I believe MPFD already covers EPA + Atherton and some unincorporated MP areas.

Like this comment
Posted by Safety 1st
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2012 at 5:15 pm

It does seem that it should have ONE DISPATCH.

Like this comment
Posted by anne
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 13, 2012 at 6:57 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Control is an essential element of successful emergency incident command.

Would Anne prefer that emergency response done by a community meeting?

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 13, 2012 at 9:11 pm

> I believe MPFD already covers EPA + Atherton and some
> unincorporated MP areas.

Yes .. that's right. My use of the word "regionalization" might not be as clear as one might want in discussions like these. There are some who would see a "region" perhaps as large as the 6-County SF.BayArea. My sense is that trying to combine the public safe apparatus from the numerous small agencies that exist today (with a few large ones) would not be an easy proposition--at least for the Fire Departments. The police might be able to do it, however. Over the past few years the Scotland has debated combining the police forces of the whole country into a single command--servicing a 6-odd million country. The SF.BayArea is about 7M, so if Scotland can do it--then it stands to reason that we in the SF.BayArea could also.

My thinking about this is that it might not hurt to start thinking about "rebooting" Palo Alto City government, as well as others in the nearby area--by looking at merging/regionalizing various function so government to see what kinds of economy of scale that can be achieved, and what impacts there would be on the service delivery models.

For instance--with a budget of around $30M, the City of Palo Alto will be spending upwards of $300M over the next ten years, and about $750M over the next 20 years, and so on. Looking at neighboring Cities, they have Fire Department budgets that will ultimately end up spending in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, over this time frame.

The question I keep asking is: "how can Palo Alto, and its neighbors, spend their money differently, so that Palo Alto, and its neighbors, can end up spending less on its fire fighting apparatus and more on other matters--like funding the $550M (or 2x or 3x) needed for infrastructure repair/rehab? There are many possibilities--but unless we can get the question of "change" on the table, and into discussion by our elected officials, and our residents--we will continue to spend billions on public safety that is not necessarily being spent as effectively as it could be spent.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Aug 14, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I worked in Redwood City many years ago near SMCO dispatch center. The County wide dispatch center was not "initiated by MPFPD" as Mr Carpenter states. There were several FD's in SMCO using a joint dispatch center for years when the MPFPD was still operating their own dispatch center. The MPFPD was lead on things through the years but County wide dispatch was not one of them.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Palo Alto Hills

on Jun 6, 2017 at 11:43 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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

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