Firefighters were hampered from reaching an East Palo Alto home on Monday evening when a fire broke out because of heavy traffic. And the problem of delayed response times is becoming an increasing concern for departments across the area, including in Palo Alto, local fire chiefs said.
While firefighters quickly knocked down Monday's blaze, the majority of fire trucks arrived on scene eight minutes behind the first engine due to the traffic congestion. The first unit arrived by 6:11 p.m., but others could not arrive until 6:19 p.m., Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said on Tuesday.
"It makes me nervous to hear calls like that, because stuff can go wrong," he said.
The delays are concerning for local chiefs, including Palo Alto Fire Chief Eric Nickel. In Palo Alto, responders are delayed by up to 30 seconds each time they go out during morning and evening commutes, and 30 percent of the runs take place during those hours, he said.
Schapelhouman said that good news for the economy is bad news for public safety.
"In the last nine months our guys have noticed a huge uptick in the amount of traffic on calls we're responding to. It's delaying our response and with a fire, you want to get there as soon as possible," he said.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District strives to be on scene within eight minutes, but Schapelhouman said that has become increasingly difficult in recent months due to roadway conditions.
"We experience this a lot. I get very nervous as a fire chief," he said, adding that he has ridden along with crews and watched what happens. The department began tracking the problem in the late part of 2014. Nickel has talked to the City Council about his concerns, he said.
The problem is exacerbated by understaffing during workdays, he said.
"Palo Alto is a tale of two cities. During the day, the population is 150,000 to 175,000 people, but the department is built to handle 85,000 -- the 65,000 in Palo Alto and 20,000 at Stanford. We're the right size for 85,000. To meet the daytime population, we would need 10 to 12 stations. We have six," he said.
The department is looking at how to accommodate that population increase; first-responders not only fight fires, but they take care of traffic accidents, injuries and emergency medical conditions.
Nickel said the department is looking at staffing more resources during the busy times of the day by positioning personnel doing inspections and training in strategic parts of the city to respond quickly in an emergency. The department is also considering smaller, rapid-response trucks that are pick-up sized to get in and assess the situation he said.
The department has an automatic-aid agreement with Mountain View's fire department, which sends the nearest available engines to the scene, regardless of the city. That arrangement has been equitable, he said, with each department having responded to about 25 calls across city borders.
"We've noticed an improvement in responses because of that. It's working really well," he said.
Palo Alto is trying to work out a similar agreement with Menlo Park Fire, he said. Currently, the two departments have a mutual-aid agreement, by which they help each other when needed, but it is not automatic, he said.